The year that was and wasn't

It says something about sailing’s prospects as a sport that 2008 left us with three round-the-world races under way at the same time. As we look to nail down just what that means, do keep your thumbs clear of the hammer.Certainly sailboat racing is as incoherent as ever in its public face. Hard-core fans have no trouble, or not so much, separating a crewed circumnavigation (the
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It says something about sailing’s prospects as a sport that 2008 left us with three round-the-world races under way at the same time. As we look to nail down just what that means, do keep your thumbs clear of the hammer.

Certainly sailboat racing is as incoherent as ever in its public face. Hard-core fans have no trouble, or not so much, separating a crewed circumnavigation (the Volvo, with eight entries and 10 legs) from the Eurocentric French-fueled singlehanded extravaganza (the Vende Globe, with 30 entries) going around nonstop. This becomes a complicated face for the public, however, even without adding six doublehanded and two singlehanded 40-footers participating in the inaugural Portimo Global Ocean Race.

As usual, American sailors have little presence in the Vende (best of luck, Rich Wilson, lone U.S. entry) but a strong, small presence in the Volvo. And, for once, there is an American-flagged entry, Puma. Under skipper Ken Read, Puma put points on the board, running second to Ericsson 4 and skipper Torben Grael in the opening leg from Spain to South Africa. Ericsson 4, meanwhile, set a new 24-hour monohull record of 602 miles. With the fleet arriving mid-December in Singapore and departing January 18 for Qingdao, is that a harbinger of things to come?

It is extraordinary to have three round-the-world races under way at once, yet somehow it’s typical in the way of a confusing message, and typical again for much of what we see, looking in the rear-view mirror at 2008.

There was the breakthrough Olympiad in China, where the breakthroughs were mostly about China. Safe to say, the British hosts for 2012 knew halfway through Beijing’s opening ceremonies they should not try to top that. Sailors, meanwhile, were quartered at a distance on the Yellow Sea, where the port of Qingdao had been laboriously cleared of a major invasion of algae in advance of (perhaps) the last Olympic Games to include Tornado catamarans. The algae made network news, the sailing only for the algae.

Think what you will of ISAF’s sustaining votes in 2008 to exclude cats from 2012, the voting process exposed a flawed system of self-interests woefully incapable of healing itself, of delegations no more capable of coming together for a common good than are nation states of agreeing to multilateral disarmament. Even more fundamental are two unresolved divides:

1.) There are those who think our sport would be better off without the Olympics (because it’s nothing but a shortcut career path to the pros, and that’s not “our” problem), while others treasure Olympic sailing for rewarding excellence.

2.) There are those who want Olympic sailing to represent the best existing elements of the sport, while others want Olympic sailing to be a driving force, reinventing the game with thrilling boats and compelling visuals.

The year produced plenty of heat but precious little light, and we did not move the ball, at all.

Closer to home, Team USA may have been transformed by the Qingdao Olympics. The one gold, one silver reprise of 2004 results balances against the results of new efforts in fund raising, coaching, and team building that led us out of Qingdao with a new sense of cohesion, young competitors bent on staying in the game, and a continuity of management. Olympic Sailing chair Dean Brenner says he cannot foresee a time when U.S. sailors would be professionalized along the British model, successful though it is at piling up medals. However, with so much emphasis now on competing internationally, we can’t help wondering if it isn’t time to revisit the question of selecting Team USA by means other than the “crucible” of the one-regatta system and making it more of a forward-looking squad.

But enough fustigation. Kudos to Anna Tunnicliffe-Funk for pulling out the gold medal we anticipated, also to Zach Railey for winning the silver he didn’t dare predict but quietly believed in. And of course in the Paralympics to doublehander John Ruf for achieving bronze, and to Nick Scandone/Maureen McKinnon-Tucker for thrilling us with a gold-medal win for the ages. And to Britain’s Ben Ainslie, rising above his contemporary Olympians with three golds and one silver and closing on Paul Elvstrm’s all-time medal record.

Balls in the air

In the Mediterranean, where the TP52 class has reached critical mass, American Terry Hutchinson was on a roll. You might recall that Hutchinson came out of 2007 (America’s Cup tactician for Emirates Team New Zealand) with certain people claiming he had something to prove. So he made his point skippering Quantum Racing and won the hard-fought Audi MedCup and the TP52 Worlds. Then he went on to win the Melges 24 Worlds. We’re reminded of 2007 and the trash talking aimed at Kiwi skipper Dean Barker. Until he started winning. Then his man Hutchinson, asked for comment, chewed on the question and said, “All that stuff about Dean was crap.”

A quiet revolution in Maxi racing came to fruition as two late-2007 mini-Maxis, Dan Meyers’s Numbers and Roger Sturgeon’s Rosebud, established themselves and inspired imitators. Coming into 2009, a crowd of “mini-maxis” are online or coming. Perhaps the 30-meter maxi-Maxis bring shock and awe, but the smaller boats are the real deal for competition, and they had quite the showdown at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in Sardinia in September. Numbers won, under charter to Ernesto Bertarelli and sailed by his Team Alinghi.

Oh yes, Alinghi. The America’s unCup. A different meaning for “Indecision ’08.” A year spent dragging through the courts of New York, punctuated by a late-season play on the part of the defender, working off the only movement then-to-date, a decision to launch a Louis Vuitton Pacific Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, in February. Louis Vuitton Pacific will share two matched Kiwi and two matched BMW Oracle boats among invited Cup teams.

With that plan taking off, Bertarelli made his own move. Alinghi announced that, court case or no, they were kicking off the next America’s Cup cycle in a type of boat to be negotiated with accepted challengers (with cost savings in mind), and everyone was welcome. The agenda, however, was designed to create a quandary for Oracle boss Larry Ellison and his allies at Mascalzone Latino, who had filed a Friend of the Court Brief on Ellison’s behalf. With a court ruling unlikely before spring, an entry cutoff in December meant that either they could play Alinghi’s game as a challenger (mooting their lawsuit against Alinghi), or Ellison could take his chances on winning in court, then take his chances of winning a Deed of Gift match in giant multihulls.

For the record, the disputed Challenger of Record, Club Nutico Espaol de Vela, was connected to a respirator in November to stage an “Annual Regatta” for AC boats, won by Alinghi. Also for the record, Ellison’s 90-by-90 trimaran, built to maybe-yes or maybe-no race for America’s Cup, is a fascinating beast and a thrill for its “riders.” Following a launch in the Pacific Northwest, the Deed of Gift match challenger (DOGzilla) was barged south to San Diego for development. Skipper Russell Coutts allowed, “When I’m on a horse I’ve got no control. A trained rider knows what to do, but that’s not me, and the horse pretty much knows it. When I first jumped on this boat, same thing.”

Racing milestones

Chicago Yacht Club’s Race to Mackinac was run for the 100th time, drawing a record 430 entries to this Midwest long-distance classic. The race had more lightning than your SAIL representative has ever seen from the deck of a boat, plus the predictable mix of umpteen different races in one, and the (not to be taken for granted) polished work of an experienced race committee that managed both ends of a 333-mile race to perfection. The 100th Mac was cool.

Down South, 231 boats sailed the 50th-anniversary Dauphin Island Race. That was nowhere near a record entry for this big season opener, but it was a comeback from the devastation of Hurricanes Ivan and Katrina. Welcome back, Mobile Bay.

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