Friday, March 30, 2007

Keeping it not quite real

This America's Cup blog is barely launched, but I've just spent a day chasing Transpac issues (dear to my heart), and there was not much action in Valencia. Lots of AC teams had a day off as they tried to pace themselves toward what will surely be a silly day on Sunday--the skirts come off, and lots of people will be running around making profound statements about the shape of the boats, whether they know anything or not--with four days of Act 13 fleet racing to kick off on Tuesday.

We're not even down to the serious racing, but the times are serious. Points from Act 13 might eventually determine the difference between 8th and 9th in the Challenger standings, but they won't determine the Challenger. Meanwhile, the Big Two from the ranks of 11 challengers, plus the Defender, Alinghi, are weighing how much of their performance profile to hang out in public in the fleet races, and how to best gauge what the competition is hanging out vs. holding back for the Louis Vuitton Cup eliminations that begin on April 16.

The Big Two? In order of finish after 12 Acts, that would be Emirates Team New Zealand and BMW Oracle. But I can't define an arbitrary Big Two without having somebody ask, what about Luna Rossa, the heir to 2000 challenger, Prada? Aren't they automatically part of a Big Three?

Good question, but I'm rejecting the "automatically" part of it. Nothing I know tells me that Luna Rossa has a better chance than other boats, or that my own Big Two couldn’t possibly play out otherwise, no matter how unlikely that is. We've yet to see the ponies hit the track.

Chasing supposed Transpac conspiracies wore me out today (see Labyrinthine, Byzantine if you don't believe me. Then I received this warm letter from a sailor in Massachusetts, in response to a guest editorial that I wrote at the invitation of the Scuttlebutt newsletter. Scuttlebutt is playing an anniversaries theme (white space is the enemy, baby, I can dig it), and this is the 20th anniversary of Dennis Conner's comeback victory at the America's Cup in Australia. It is also the 15th anniversary of the release of the movie, WIND, inspired by that comeback.
You can read my commentary on the experience of being a consultant and one of the writers at WIND. I may have neglected in that writing to make explicitly clear that, for me, it was a great experience. And most people came away feeling the same way. The job, as defined by our director, Carroll Ballard, was to make, not a documentary, but "a dream of the America's Cup."

I was blessed to be a writing partner with Roger Vaughan, whose work I had admired (still do) for ages. There were high points that I wouldn't trade for anything, and then there's a note like this, from Beverly Blagden of Beverly, Massachusetts. Obviously, they like her so much they named the town after her, so she speaks with authority.

I give you Beverly Blagden:

"I read with interest your Scuttlebutt editorial on the making of WIND, of which I own not one but two copies, having nothing to do with the fact that there was a woman in the pivotal role (though watching her kicking out a 200-pound headsail on a diminutive Singer, that I couldn’t have made curtains with, gave me goosebumps) or the fact that it documents for all time Jennifer Grey’s preferable nose.

"In my opinion, WIND has done more for sailors and sailing than any other piece of media. Sailing is inherently misunderstood, as is clearly evident when, after a weekend of one design sailing, I return to work Monday morning with bruises all over my arms and legs and the only sympathy I receive is a snooty “Oh, did you hurt yourself cutting up a lime for your gin and tonic”? Haul out a copy of WIND, fast forward to the boats slamming through the big waves, casually mention that it’s your regular job to be the guy that gets hauled up the mast and that you usually end up returning to the deck upside down. Most of my friends and acquaintances have no idea what sailing is all about, but after a few showings of WIND they get it. No more lime comments.

"My son has been teaching junior sailors for years and wouldn’t leave the house on a rainy day without his copy of WIND. After indoor knot tying and safety reviewing and other low-energy activities, the kids can’t get enough of this movie, especially the I-14 scenes, which he has to replay again and again. One summer it rained and blew for a week straight, and he said that he played this movie about ten times in a row for the same kids and they still wanted to see it again.


That makes me feel good, on behalf of the many people who busted their guts to make the movie happen. What's next? That was the 20th century, and we're building the next world aren't we?

— Kimball

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Flip side of high tech

America's Cup teams are always buzzing about high technology, but what happens where the rubber hits the road? The start line. The finish line. How teched-up are they?

The answer, from the man in the hotseat, is teched-up NOT.

Principal Race Officer Peter Reggio tells us that starts and finishes in Valencia are governed by eyeball, and he's fine with that.

Here's "Luigi," as he's known: "People have talked about using telemetry to track the boats at the start and finish, but things move around so much out there—the race committee boat on its anchor, the pin on its anchor—that telemetry introduces issues of its own. The navigator will ping the RC boat to get a position for his prestart moves, but he won't just ping it once and forget it. He has to keep on pinging."

"Pinging" with a laser range finder, that is, to get a position for the tactical navigation software that's an important component of prestart maneuvers. The laser is the same piece of equipment that the navigator or someone uses to track relative bearing to the opposition as the boats make their way around the course.

It's a sure bet that if America's Cup Management demanded it, and the money was on the table, someone would come up with a way to make a transponder system work for tracking starts and finishes. We could, for example, go straight to Stan Honey, who is not only a genius ocean-racing navigator. Stan (his company is Sportvision, Inc.) developed the software that "paints" the yellow first-down lines on NFL broadcasts, outlines the strike zone for baseball games, and has some very interesting angles cooking with NASCAR. But to bring those technologies to the sailing racecourse, Reggio says, "It would be incredibly expensive. Some people want a system like that, but on an NFL field the lines are static. On the water, with everything moving around, the human eye can probably read a start/finish line better than any device.

"Also, if you had an electronic system, there are other things you'd have to get the teams to agree on, ahead of time," Reggio says. "Think about a finish—Cup races finish downwind—and the part of the boat that finishes first is 40 feet in the air. You can't put a transponder on the spinnaker, so you'd have to pick a spot on the hull. Then you have to ask about the sampling frequency."

Okay, Luigi, we get the idea. So what's it like to live under the pressure of running races for the America's Cup?

"I sort of laugh when people ask that," he answers. "We don't get too fussed up about it. It's what we do."

Reggio has been PRO for scads of top regattas, and he was one of the leaders in changing the relationship between sailors and the race committee. I remember once interviewing him for a SAIL story I called, Talk to 'em. The theme was open, uniform communication. He says, "In the old days there was sort of an 'us against them' mentality, Race Committee versus the competitors. But I provide a service. I deliver the fairest and best racing that I can, and that's it."

During the opening stages of the Louis Vuitton Cup races to choose a challenger, Reggio will be working with Race Chairman Dyer Jones as PRO along with three other race officers, five "team leaders," four course marshals, 25 umpires, and more support boats than you could count on your fingers and toes.

And that says nothing about spectators. Having the Cup in Europe changes the entire race-fan equation. When the America's Cup went to Perth, Australia, it was a big deal to Australia, but Perth is just a wee bit remote. When the Cup went to San Diego, the USA got excited, then circumstances changed. When the Cup went to Auckland, New Zealand, the world cheered, and you couldn't ask for a place where the locals care more about sailing. But that can't compare to Europe, with its huge, concentrated population.

"The 2000 competition in Auckland was a nice little regatta," Reggio recalls. "2003 was a bit more ramped up, and now here we go . . . "

Thanks, Luigi, and as I like to say at the beginning of any regatta, good luck, Race Committee.

— Kimball         (Unveiling day minus 4 and counting)

Photo Credits: "Luigi" courtesy of ACM2007