Friday, June 22, 2007

Enter at Five

Imagine 1
It's 1983 on Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island and the shuffleboard gets reshuffled ever so slightly. (It wouldn't have taken much, folks.)

The Aussies have finally come to the party with a faster boat, the wing-keeled Australia II, but the Americans win anyway. (That match should never have gone seven races, but John Bertrand and the thunder from down under required that many races to finish off the Dennis Conner machine.)

This time, imagine, we're lacking that spot of extra breeze out to one side of the final run in Race 7, we're re-timing a gybe and . . .

Imagine 2
It's 2007 and we're on the America's Cup racecourse on Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, where the New York Yacht Club defenders are seeking to extend their 156-year winning streak. In the 24 years since the big scare of '83, the Americans have never again been caught behind in the technology race, but challengers keep coming back because the mountain is so high.

As the clock winds down to the first race of America's Cup 2007, a group of men in straw hats raise their binoculars . . .

Imagine 3
It's 2007 and we're on the America's Cup racecourse in the Med off Valencia, Spain, and today you're going to sail Race 1 of the 32nd America's Cup match, and probably somebody has told you to go out and sail it as if it's just another boat race, but it's not that, it's not that. You are one of 34 men, 17 aboard Alinghi and 17 aboard Emirates Team New Zealand, and this is your moment. For the next five races minimum, nine races maximum, every small triumph on the racecourse is yours to keep because it won't be forgotten. It will be remembered, recorded, scrutinized. As will every tiny error or questionable call. As will any glaring deficiency. Anything you do or say has a chance of becoming part of the story that forms the spine of the history of sailing, the America's Cup. As the countdown closes on five minutes and your entry to the start box, the world seals off around you. The weather team goes silent. Your radios go overboard in a waterproof pouch to be picked up by a chase boat. Your sailmakers can only watch. Your engineers can only watch. Your sponsors can only watch and pray as 17 men get on with the business of sailing a boat race, come what may.

And so you commence doing what you've trained to do . . .

Imagine skipping the prerace press conference

I decided I couldn't, because I've hammered on some of the principals in the past for not showing up. Now I have to go, even though I expected slim pickings and was pretty much right. You can't put meat on the table unless there's been blood spilled somewhere.

But it wasn't a complete waste.

Interesting, for example, to see Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth appearing far more relaxed than Emirates Team New Zealand tactician Terry Hutchinson. Not that I'm asking you to read a lot into that. I think that Terry runs pretty wound-up anyhow. He was geared tight during the challenger races, which came out OK for New Zealand. And interesting to go back over the Butterworth story: Age 27 at Fremantle in 1987, and crewing for Chris Dickson on the fiberglass 12-Meter that was eliminated in the final challenger round by Dennis Conner's team. Aboard with the Kiwis for the big win in 1995 and the big defense in 2000, then jumping ship to follow Russell Coutts to Alinghi, then helping to take the Cup off New Zealand in 2003 and now still with Alinghi after Coutts has famously split. Twenty years of America's Cup sailing, and 15 Cup races in a row that he's won.

Quote Unquote Brad Butterworth

On the battle-hardened experience of his Kiwi opponents . . .
I think our in-house racing has been as good as the challenger racing. The happiest day of my life was when the Louis Vuitton Cup ended, because I was sick of watching the racing on TV.

On his role as skipper, as well as tactician, in selecting Baird to drive . . .
Between Ed Baird and Peter Holmberg there's not that much. It came down to a few in-house regattas [some six weeks ago] that Ed won. He's one of, probably, five people in the world who can sail one of these boats as well as they can be sailed.

On going up against an unknown . . .
It's not as though we haven't raced those guys, and they haven't raced us. We don't need any more time.

And as for the roll call at the press conference:
Present: Dean Barker, helmsman for New Zealand.
Absent: Ed Baird, newly named, as expected, to helm Alinghi for Race 1 and presumably the match (absent from the Alinghi press conference as well as the ACM press conference; but he had been in stride at the AC Match party the night before.

Also present was Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli, who faced some tough questions and partly answered some of them and danced around others.

Quote Unquote Ernesto Bertarelli

On relying heavily on non-Swiss sailors on the boat . . .
When you look at the shore team and the team overall, Swiss is the largest nationality in the team.

On the Kiwi threat to bring back nationality requirements . . .
The nationality rule does not go back so very far. It does not have a lot of history. We abolished the nationality rule to reduce cost for this Cup. The last time, the residency rule forced us to support second homes for our sailors, one in Switzerland, so that they could meet the rules. But if you win the Cup you get to decide what to do with it. That's the beauty of this game."

Which, I believe, is an answer about how teams in the past, not only Alinghi, have worked around the spirit of nationality requirements. And then, on pushing branding and commercialism . . .
The problem is, the America's Cup is not earning its living. The Cup is still a game supported by wealthy owners. For the sake of all the sailors and the people who make a living off the America's Cup, we should continue this and get to a state where the America's Cup supports itself."

On what's been the hardest part of being the defender?

One ritual of the pre-event press conference is the coin toss for first starboard entry. Terry Hutchinson called "heads" for the challenger and the toss came up heads, so New Zealand has the advantaged, starboard-tack entry for Race 1. Should the series go to nine races, they will have five starboard entries to four for Alinghi.

Weather forecasts are all over the board, but if you make two piles, the one marked "light wind, perhaps even un-raceable on Saturday" is a lot bigger.

Conventional wisdom has it that NZL 92 will continue to favor a lighter breeze, even though it has been remoded with a longer bulb to more closely match Alinghi.

Conventional wisdom has it that Alinghi's fuller hull lines will continue to favor more breeze, even though there is reason to believe that SUI 100 has been remoded to more closely match New Zealand.

Conventional wisdom has it that, when two teams go out to race, a lot of the outcome is up to them.

Oysters Away

Not everyone spent the past week practicing or resting or worrying. A fleet of 37 Oysters, 45 feet to 82 feet, competed in the Oyster Regatta Valencia. As you might expect of a gathering of large, luxurious cruising boats, most with in-mast mainsail furling, the point was to have a good time, much more than to prove cutting-edge competitive skills. But, you know, it's hard to keep the juices from flowing.

At the start of Thursday's second race, Oyster CEO and founder Richard Matthews smelled-out the goodies and port-tacked the fleet in his chartered 82-footer, Zig Zag. Given the opportunity, who could resist? (No, I don't have pics of this moment; I was on the main and it seemed best to focus on my duties should, um, developments develop). At other times I caught sight'ems such as this, a committee boat on loan from friends. Thank you, race committee . . .

These are some powerful boats . . .

While racing, the boats flew the fleet flag . . .

But, to comply with the branding requirements of America's Cup Management, they had to remove the flags before re-entering Port America's Cup. A few people even played with those big, bright balloonsails that go out front, but I'm not sure they had more fun than we did playing white-sails-only . . .

I can tell you though, they work a man to death on an Oyster 82. One race trimming main, and the thumb I was using to push the electric-winch button was done for. We're talking a need for serious massage.

And speaking of Port America's Cup, you couldn't call it empty . . .

And you couldn't call it full . . .

So I guess there really has to be a reason why the megayachts did their big regatta at Palma, and haven't exactly shown up in droves.

Now, readers here in Valencia, listen up. There may be a few of you unaware of the Night of San Juan, kicking off Saturday night after Race 1 but nothing, I assure you, nothing to do with the America's Cup. It's described to me as a night when the beach is filled with a mass of people--it's the solstice--drinking heavily and jumping over bonfires. German photographer Heike Schwab has lived near the beach for the last several years, and she says the entire neighborhood shuts down; traffic doesn't come in or go out, and the howl goes all night long. I don't think you will find me there, but having attempted to be a guide to certain other local festivals and customs, I thought you ought to know.

Now who thought that one up? Let's get drunk and jump over bonfires. It's right up there with, let's get stoned and operate power tools—Kimball