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Welcome to the 34th America's Cup

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AC34: An America's Cup Like No Other 

Half a year ago I sailed the winter-calm waters of San Francisco Bay aboard a classic 1929 yawl. Ghosting over glass, thinking calm-before-the-storm, I could imagine a time to come when the peculiar summer seabreeze of the Golden Gate would turn the bay blustery, cold and rough, even as the surrounding region welcomed the heat of summer—as in, what’s happening there right now, as you read this. In a conversation with a certain highly invested individual who has spent the last three years trying to make the best of the upcoming 34th America’s Cup, I found myself agreeing that we had no idea whether we would have ourselves a diamond or a lump of coal—and that was before Artemis crashed its first boat, Olympic gold medalist Andrew Simpson lost his life, and conversations about the competition became not merely complicated, but touchy. The event will most certainly go forward, but how? How is it possible to carry that memory alongside an enthusiasm for the all-new America’s Cup, and catamarans that are thrilling, and scary-fast? As a life lesson, perhaps.

In the end, everything about the 34th America’s Cup is going to be a process of discovery, The principals who won the America’s Cup for America in 2010 never hesitated to play for big stakes. Their vision of the future is a fully professional event that is a part of a circuit in which successful sports teams return a profit to the rich guy who owns them. Pretty much like any other sport. To date, it’s not happening, despite a huge investment by the owner of the 2013 defending team, software billionaire Larry Ellison, who has thrown a fortune at the problem. Which doesn’t mean that it can’t work with a successful event this year.

Enough has gone right, and enough has gone wrong, to leave the issue way, way up in the air. There was a high point in August 2012, when the “trainer fleet” of one-design 45-footers raced along the San Francisco cityfront to the cheers of thousands of fans, sailors and nonsailors alike. The lows have come in the way of a low challenger turnout in hard economic times—a trio of challengers from Sweden, New Zealand and Italy, instead of the dozen once envisioned—and the festering, fractious city politics surrounding the event, which to the locals is normal. Add to that the continuing realization that the AC72s are bigger and faster than they had to be to achieve their objective (now we know) and overpowered to boot.

I’ve been on the America’s Cup beat since 1980, back when the regatta still took place off Newport, Rhode Island, and I can tell you, we’ve never rolled a bigger hand of dice. And yes, I mean “we.” Coming off the most recent match in Valencia—when BMW Oracle’s 90-foot tri beat Ernesto Bertarelli’s 90-foot catamaran Alinghi—I wrote what seems obvious: that even though Cup racing is an awkward fit with the rest of our sport, for all the chatter over the years about developing an alternative signature event, it hasn’t happened and it’s not going to happen. In sailing, the America’s Cup is it. We have to get this right. Historically, we do—occasionally.

Can the 2013 America’s Cup redefine professional sailing, re-energize the base, and simultaneously attract a new sports-minded audience to sailing? Early on, Ellison declared, “To succeed, we have to make this a television sport,” and his technical team has produced extraordinary results, but whether these results will translate into good ratings remains to be seen.

The same can also be said of Larry Ellison’s legacy with respect to the sport he has loved since his college days at Berkeley. As a student, Ellison sailed out of the Cal Sailing Club, where on a certain personally significant day, he scared the willies out of himself with the discovery that taking a Lido 14 all the way across San Francisco Bay is exhilarating—and seaward of the Golden Gate Bridge, baby, it gets hairy. In short, Ellison has never been known to shy away from a challenge, and the upcoming America’s Cup is no exception.

And there we are. San Francisco Bay, a sailor surely knows, is the venue for America’s Cup 2013, with a spectator-friendly racecourse right in the maw of the Golden Gate wind funnel. Competition in wing-sailed 72-foot catamarans seemed like a big deal in and of itself until Emirates Team New Zealand deployed daggerboards that we might as well call hydrofoils, lifted both hulls above the water and in the process also elevated the game to a whole new level. All four teams are now expected to race full-foiling boats, and there is no longer any such thing as being conservative. Picture a boat with a deck the size of a tennis court “flying” above the surface, a boat that is capable of speeds in the 40s and aboard which, as Kiwi helmsman Dean Barker put it, every maneuver requires “an exit strategy.”

America’s Cup sailors have long been good athletes, but Navy Seals would be a better analogy now. Anyone lacking body and nerves of steel got weeded out early on. Oracle tactician John Kostecki describes himself as a “tactician-grinder.” Every time out he knows that, for his own sake, for his mates, for the defense of the America’s Cup, he has to get this right. Drum roll, please…


 

 

Kimball Livingston has not only been covering the San Francisco sailing scene since the 1970s, he has also been SAIL’s America’s Cup correspondent since the early 1980s, when the Cup was still being contested aboard 12-meter monohulls off Newport, Rhode Island. 

 

 

 

 


Photo courtesy of Nigel Marpel/Luna Rossa

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