Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Beautiful, and cruel

What can get lost in all the talk and hype and naval-gazing of an America's Cup is that everyone here is living an intense experience. Even just scribbling, it's true for me, but it is far more the case for the people on the teams. There's a madness to it. Nobody keeps office hours. It's a life that you live day and night. Dennis Conner made the phrase famous, "the commitment to the commitment." Something of that is demanded of all who tread here, and then there are the moments when you remember why you do it. Some of those happen on the water. One of those moments happened for me ashore, at the Victory Challenge compound the night after the Swedes were eliminated, and there was my homie Morgan Larson giving me a lighthearted ration because I had given his team a lighthearted ration for their chase boat drop in front of Desafío Español --that I hadn't been clear enough that the move is legal, unless it's done as a tactical assault.

Well, part of my point was that it almost looked like that, but Morgan and I didn't bother to work this through because we were both on a higher plane. Three years of striving on the part of Victory Challenge were coming to an end. Early mornings. Late nights. The drama of daring to try. With one more race to sail, everyone from skipper Magnus Holmberg to the sailmakers to the girl who sells Victory Challenge shirts in the shop were feeling the end of something large in their lives; images and memories they would carry forever.

There was a party on the roof of the Swedish compound that night, pre-scheduled to happen no matter what, to announce a new watch line by a sponsor, Corum. Sweden's hopes to make the final four had not survived their matchup on Tuesday with New Zealand, but the party would go on, even as a wake. These people never expected to win the America's Cup, but they almost made the final four. Holmberg said, "If we had known the result a year ago, we would have been pleased."

The stars were out over the coast of Spain, and the compounds around the harbor were blazing with lights—those buildings did not even exist the first time I came to Valencia; the harbor didn't exist as we see it now, and the America's Cup may never be back—and from the industrial harbor a ship was setting out to sea. On the stage, on the roof, for us, a girl was dancing Flamenco and she was not just a girl. She was a wonder. And there was a guitar, and a voice raised in song as ancient and exquisite as Spain herself, and it went on and it was good and it lifted us and carried us away, all of us there, the music and the dance and the girl so fiercely alive, a repudiation of everything ordinary.

Thank you, Victory Challenge.

Now Morgan goes back to racing his 49er on the Olympic trail and I show up on Thursday at China Team to buy a bike. It seems that, suddenly, China Team has more bikes than sailors. They had a bye on Wednesday, while everyone else went racing. China was this empty at 1030, when I went to look over the prospects on the bike rack.

Not that I'm planning to be there that early again. The Louis Vuitton Cup Party is tonight, and I reckon I have an obligation to you to be there to report.

Here is Mascalzone launching for her final race of the Louis Vuitton Cup. The Latin Rascals helped keep things lively around here, and they went out on a high note, with a 00:38 win over Victory on Wednesday. Those two were the first flight on the north course, and after they finished we were looking at four boats still racing, the four who will make up the fleet when semi-final eliminations racing kicks off.

Racing they went

James Spithill inflicted a painful sailing lesson upon Desafio helmsman Jesper Radich (thanks, sifler)in their prestart, locking the Spanish team out of the committee-boat end of the line under a thought bubble that read: Shoo. Shoo. You go over there, because I'm going to go over this way and sail a sailboat race. Bye Bye.

Luna Rossa over Desafío Español by 01:54.

And a lot went on in the prestart between Chris Dickson at the helm of BMW Oracle and Dean Barker on Emirates Team New Zealand. The match of the day. The two boats at the top, with top-dog honors for the Round Robins to the winner. Judging it as a boxing match with points awarded as the starting gun sounded, I'd say that these two started even, but Dickson got in more punches, and better punches, in the five-minute runup. BMW Oracle came in from the left end of the line and sailed across the bow of the Kiwi boat—you're not supposed to be able to do that, but they keep doing that—and it went from there.

From that even start, however, New Zealand tacked early to port while Oracle remained on starboard tack and dug a hole deep into the left corner.

Meanwhile, the breeze freshened and went right. Barker was on the right and looking right. For you nonsailors—a major windshift like that changes the angle that a boat can sail to the mark. The effect is as profound as if you could say, I want to pick up my boat, and put it down again, over here.

Race over, but they still had four legs to sail.

This was the leeward mark rounding. Oh dear.

Finish line delta: 01:34.

So, it was either a weather-team race, meaning that the Kiwi weather team won, or BMW Oracle just didn't want to show anything to the Kiwis, and Larry Ellison's guys were willing to give up first place (and the right to select an opponent for the semis) to protect their privacy. One of my British colleagues is sure of it. I'm not. But it sure was a strange split. Those boats weren't even in the same race.

Inside the America's Cup Beltway, you can't tie your shoe without inspiring a conspiracy theory.

New Zealand, having won the Round Robins, gets to choose its opponent for the semis. They choose Spain. First boat to win five races goes on, and the other is eliminated. Oracle will race Luna Rossa.

Dickson's take on the day:
"Hindsight is a wonderful thing."

Barker's take on the day:
"We thought we were looking at an even racecourse, but in the last five minutes before we entered [the start box] we received a very clear call from our weather team that they had changed their minds, and they wanted us to go right."

Now we take a little break, the first in a long, long while. But not the shore teams. It's time to re-mode the boats and bring out some new weapons. I'll stay with you through the break. There's always something cooking. The semifinal round of eliminations starts Monday. Wear your cruel shoes—Kimball