Friday, April 27, 2007

Thanks for the Energy Dose

"A bit overwhelming" is how Alison Turner describes landing in Valencia on a school project to reconnect with the America's Cup heritage of Deer Isle, Maine. But she seemed pretty upbeat in her role as one of four kids from that lobster-fishing paradise on an island washed on one shore by Penobscot Bay and on the other shore by Blue Hill Bay. Alison's great, great grandfather was a crewman on America's Cup defender, Defender, in 1895 and aboard Valkyrie III in the defense of 1899. All four kids, and one teacher, and a lot of Deer Isle share the heritage. Their hardy, seafaring ancestors were recruited to man some of the largest, scariest racing yachts ever put on the water. Ordinary men couldn't or wouldn't have done it, but they did, and the America's Cup stayed in America on an unbroken streak until 1983.

A metal ring that Alison brought with her was made from the melted-down hull of Defender. Each crewman received a ring as a memory of the experience, but only a few remain and the memories had grown faint, until this history project kicked off. The travelling group includes several additional teachers and Bill Whitman, a New York Yacht Club sailor who traces his own roots back two centuries on the island. Whitman, who stepped in as benefactor when the school's fundraising came up short, brought along a cap—the one that Alison is wearing here—from Defender. Usually, the hat is held by the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society, but it really needed to make this trip.

© Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle

I sat down to interview the gang in the more than adequately comfortable, upper-level hospitality level of BMW Oracle Racing. And I wound up getting interviewed myself. I think I was the first animal they had encountered in Valencia who could give them the lay of the land. That's me sitting there being a bit surprised at the role I was playing.

© Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle Racing

Before the day was over, however, the group had met racing crewmen and America's Cup experts aplenty. And tried a few of the interactive features at the BMW Oracle compound, with team photographer Gilles Martin-Raget following them around.

Here is how one of the teachers, Tom Duym, explained the connection between the island and the Cup: Heading the NYYC's 1895 defense was one Oliver Iselin, who apparently summered on Deer Isle and was familiar with the skill and daring of the local lobstermen. When Iselin was urged to crew-up Defender, not with Scandinavian paid hands but with "proper Yankees," he knew where to turn. You can judge the success by the fact that they returned in 1899. Part of the value of today's project, Duym said, is that so little has changed. One of the students. Billy Billings, is a lobsterman, and lobsterboat racing (now with diesels) is still considered good sport.

Me, I got a great dose of up energy off meeting students and teachers. I wish we'd had more time, but thanks.

Regular readers will notice a shift in tone today, away from race observation and analysis. There's a reason.

While I was at the BMW Oracle compound I ran into an old friend, and a great figure of a different era of America's Cup racing, Charles Corbitt. Charles was a backer and confidant in Dennis Conner's campaigns and I couldn't tell you everything else. That small slice would be enough of a resume in any case. And we had to talk, and pretty soon I was going out with him on the Thalia G, one of the team's big boats that follow the races, along with Tom Ehman, who wears so many hats for BMW Oracle that it would take half a dozen people to replace him. And then like magic we were joined by Malin Burnham, Star boat world champion, skipper of Enterprise in the Enterprise-Freedom campaign (for example) and the man who did more than anybody else to make Conner's comeback win in Australia possible.

It was a good day in its own way, but on our racecourse we got skunked for wind. Instead of watching BMW Oracle match up against Desafío Español and then its great rival, Emirates Team New Zealand, we twice chased the race committee to different neighbourhoods, looking for wind, before the whole show was blown off as daylight ran out on a wet, gray day.

I observed that every body just loves to take pictures. Here's one of the Deer Isle kids, early on, shooting down into the docks.

© Gilles Martin-Raget/BMW Oracle Racing

And Charles Corbitt doing the same.

When Chris Dickson sailed USA 98 past our transom, that got people excited.

Malin Burnham, wily veteran that he is, set up while the boat was still approaching, to catch a quarter view shot.

Over on the other racecourse they had some excitement, including one collision and a race where the finish delta was recorded as zero. I missed all that. I can tell you that in the first flight, Areva was credited with a win over Germany, +39 was credited with a win over no-show China (still in repairs), and then it was +39 over Germany with Shosholoza over Areva.

I don't much feel like sorting through other people's reports to construct my own version of events I didn't witness, and anyway, none of those boats will be sailing in the America's Cup match, and that's my report. Humid. A bit chilly. Not a proper racing wind and not what we were looking for. And yet, on the way home, what a scene, eh?

Sorry to leave you with bad news, but here is Peter Isler's report on the weather prognosis for Saturday: more low pressure with breeze determined by the positioning of clouds and thunderclouds. Judging by the rain beating on the windows, there's one passing through now—Kimball