What's Missing Matters

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FADE IN: With three new boats in the mix at the Louis Vuitton Cup in Valencia, 11 months before the Real Deal begins, the usual-suspects Big Four remains on top of ACC racing—BMW Oracle, Luna Rossa, Emirates Team New Zealand, and Alinghi. The defender, Alinghi,did not enter its new boat in the current round of fleet racing, instead racing an updated older boat, and showing enough speed and smarts to win the fleet racing. Newcomers Shosholoza (South Africa) and Desafia Espanol (Spain) are knocking on the door in 2006, and Sweden's Victory Challenge occasionally hits a streak.

UP LIGHTS: Alinghi created a buzz with its new jumperless rig, then didn't race with it at Valencia after speed testing, and that means . . .

Something, but we won't know what, for a while. Is it slow? Is it too fast to show off? Do they just need more time to figure it out?

BMW Oracle Racing introduced a similar rig a few weeks behind Alinghi, but also is not racing with it, which reveals every bit as much. BMW auto aerodynamics engineer Christophe Erbelding (reassigned to work on raceboat rigging), said, "The rule gives you a minimum weight for the mast, so in making the rig you want to hit that weight, then do the rest of the job right. It's interesting that we showed that rig just a few weeks after Alinghi. Obviously, both teams were working on it; we couldn't possibly have done one from scratch in that time."

Any sailor with a half-trained eye can look at the mast of, for example, Luna Rossa, and see that it has topmast jumpers, and then look at Alinghi's unused mast and see that it does not have topmast jumpers. But I had an opportunity, while sitting with Shosholoza tactician and team manager Dee Smith in the Shosholoza hospitality zone (on the roof of their compound), to learn a bit of how a highly-trained eye sees those jumperless rigs. The setting could hardly have been more apt. Alinghi was right next door, the new rig outlined against the sky.

"In these boats, topmast jumpers account for 25 kilograms aloft," Smith said. "Losing that weight up high is good, but guess what, the tradeoff is that you need more carbon and more section in the top of the mast, to make it stay up. And the rule says you can't have any hollows in the spar, which in effect means that you wind up with the same mast section top to bottom. So you wind up with a thicker section and more windage by about (holding his fingers two-fingers apart) this much."

Obviously, somebody's software program thinks that is fast, but is it fast when you're tacking a lot, and spending a lot of time head to wind? Or . . .

"It was the topmast jumpers that ripped Team New Zealand's spinnaker in their match race against BMW Oracle," Smith said, "so maybe that's something in favor of getting rid of them, and the Alinghi rig includes check stays above the hounds—unlike BMW's mast—that help to limit mast bend. You can crank down hard on the headstay but control the amount of bend that would otherwise induce in the mast. "Probably there's something in that."

Before this 2006 round of racing started, much was made of the forward placement of the mast in BMW Oracle's new USA 87. That chatter has abated a bit, but not entirely. You might debunk the "radical underbody" theory by pointing out that big, large-roach mainsails need to be mounted forward to balance the boat, though Smith noted further that, "All-up, that's about a ton of weight that you're moving, and that affects other elements of the boat, and away you go."

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With 12 teams racing in Valencia (that's the local, Desafio Espanol, at left) and three new boats launched and others in the wings, the current "Acts" are maintaining the standards of gamesmanship for which America's Cup competitors have always, how do we say this, prided themselves.

BMW Oracle Racing was the only unbeaten team here, until Monday, when they came up against Alinghi—sailing the boat that Alinghi did not use to win the Cup, but instead used to dominate racing in 2005—and lost by 21 seconds. Significant only to the mystical side of yacht racing, but worth noting, is the fact that Alinghi had earlier that day taken a close race off South Africa's "we're not so fast but we've got spirit" team, Shosholoza, by 21 seconds.

For the record, Shosholoza has been coming on considerably of late.

So I ask myself, could anything have done more to confuse the state of affairs than an Alinghi win, in an updated old boat, over BMW Oracle's brand new and much touted technology-machismo machine in their face-off? That matchup was easily the feature of the week. And to be sure, the BMW boat is young: 20 days on the water, 100 hours of sailing, 50 hours of testing prior to racing. But this one had the pre-regatta buzz of being a radical boat, which probably it is and maybe it isn't. The team did nothing to squelch the buzz when they called a press conference early on so that certain inevitable questions could be asked and team leader Chris Dickson could inevitably dodge them while describing USA 87 as "perhaps the most innovative" ACC boat in the 15-year history of the class (91 ACC boats have been built, making it the most populous class in Cup history).

Dickson specifically referred to the boat's appendages, and earlier there were those rumors of a tandem keel, or something. Then on in the race course it appeared—whenever the boat rocked—that USA 87 has a normal-looking rudder but placed, like the mast, farther forward than you'd expect. And that settles that. Unless you're talking America's Cup. For one thing, maybe some people are making the wrong assumptions about tandem keels. Or, could they have a boat with, for example, a tandem keel (a steering flap on each of two vertical struts, and a bulb between) and a dummy rudder hung aft to distract the gullible? If they know they're fast, do they mind sharing the distraction of a bit of extra drag? And would Dickson deliberately throw a race against Alinghi to hide his cards? He rather pointedly wouldn't say that he wouldn't.

You see how deep you can go when you cross into conspiracy-think. To bring this thing back down to earth, the BMW boat does seem to be a prestart weapon (maneuverability, acceleration, stopping ability), but it hasn't displayed runaway speed in a straight line. With one year and one new boat to go for BMW Oracle, now is the time to try whatever. Just to give you the idea, one guy at the heart of the design team is Paul Bieker, and he's not an inside-the-box man. You might remember him for his T-foil rudders for I-14 dinghies; world champion I-14s at that.

The beauty of this silly, grand America's Cup game is that you can't rule out much of anything. In the days of yore, when Tom Blackaller launched the double-ruddered USA for the 1987 match in Australia, the team painted the top of the bow rudder white (making it visible in the waters of San Francisco Bay) and the bottom dark (invisible at the time). The facts of a deep, high-aspect ratio forward rudder, and strut-with-ballast-bulb rather than a keel, didn't go public until the boat was relaunched in the sparkling, clear waters off Fremantle.

I'm pretty sure that America's Cup camps now have become more sophisticated at hiding whatever secrets they develop. Again returning to the Blackaller example: I was writing for the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, and everything surrounding the boat was very hush hush, and the pressure was so high that I couldn't go near the camp without feeling the force field, so when I wanted to know what was under the covers I called Tom Ehman at the New York Yacht Club syndicate (Tom is now with BMW Oracle) and he said, "Yeah, well, that's the boat with a rudder on the bow."

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