Sunday, June 17, 2007

Warriors in a Hostile Country

I sat down with Rolf Vrolijk in Alacant and we were there for the TP52's, but of course the talk got around to these sailboat races that start on Saturday in Valencia, the ones where somebody is going to win the America's Cup. Vrolik is the principal designer for Alinghi, with final responsibility for all design outlines and configurations. He wasn't into making predictions, but he was very clear in his thinking.

"We've done a good job at Alinghi," Vrolijk told me. He was sitting under a huge Breitling MedCup tent surrounded by an array of talent that included just about every name-brand sailor you ever heard of, save those still prepping for the one-bigger in Valencia: "This is not a prediction about the America's Cup. We have to win. We have to keep the Cup in Europe."

Strong stuff. But very much in keeping with the talk, since New Zealand won the right to challenge, on the implications of the outcome.

Meanwhile, New Zealand team boss Grant Dalton's public utterances hint that the divide is less cataclysmic than the characterization making the rounds, which goes like this: 1) The Cup says in Europe, and in the future we have lots of 'tween activities and racing, with lots of teams in the mix, and the trend line of growth continues; or 2) The Cup goes to the antipodes to be squirreled away by the Kiwis (they went five years between winning it in 1995 and defending it in 2000, then three years to the loss in 2003) with an aggressively nationalistic agenda and nationality requirements for the crews that will stunt the growth curve.

Putting it a different way: it is less than clear that the differences are that stark. Or that a Cup-in-Auckland would put a whole generation of professional sailors—the first of their breed; these guys are scientists/athletes-with-trainers; they're nothing like the paid hands who crewed on the boats a hundred years ago—out of work.

Dalton, I'm pretty sure, would rather focus on the business at hand rather than a squabble of what-ifs. But even if the differences are not so stark, of course it makes a difference where the Cup goes. If you're riding the wave of professional sailing in Europe, you know who you're pulling for. For whom you are pulling. Or, as Churchill once responded to an underling who edited a dangling participle, "This is the sort of nonsense, up with which I will not put!"

There's a part of me that envies people of singleminded opinion. That's because, on many matters, I wind up agnostic. This holy grail of yachting thing, for example. I see it both ways.

The Circuit, on a Cycle
I have no difficulty making an argument for rationalizing the game of America's Cup yacht racing. The sport would benefit from having an ultimate-end circuit. Why shouldn't it be based upon the only event that has name recognition? If, as sailors, we are going to put our game before the world, why shouldn't it be with a game that dates to the mid-1800's, the oldest prize in international competition anywhere, the battleground of Vanderbilts and Liptons and other people you may have heard of? And doesn't it make sense to have a circuit because it just makes sense to have a circuit because it just ... makes ... sense ... to have a circuit? Cut out the guesswork about next time, and let's have some racing. Yes, rounding it off with a match race bound by an antiquated Deed of Gift is awkward, but it can be done.

America's Cup, the Mountain
Sailboat racing is nonsense. It's been nonsense since the invention of mechanical power rendered it irrelevant to improving the navy, and part of the wonderfulness of it is surrendering to nonsense, and I love it to death and don't bother arguing with me unless you're making nonsense. The America's Cup is grand nonsense, and part of the strange magic is the power of the defender (a phenomenon still evolving) to drive the next event by arranging for a like-minded challenger of record. It's been a crazy, runaway freight train since 1983 and that's part of the fascination. Every time out, it's a one-off; it's history on the hoof and sometimes it's history on the mis-step. It's danged hard to explain what's going on to the unwashed, but if you regularize it, tame it, make it predictable, don't you lose something?

These long, big-budget campaigns have pushed the game pretty far into the camp of the corporatized. Even where an individual is fronting big dough, it's done through corporate mechanisms that take the edge off, and return-to-sponsors is a major issue. For the marketing types, not being able to tell a potential sponsor where and when the next brand exposure will take place is like wearing wolf traps on both ankles.

But dig the Kiwi deal, those tiny islands way out yonder that send out sailors that rock the world. Here they are, a band of warriors in a hostile country, and just as in the days of yore, the Cup is theirs, if they can take it.

TP52 Racing at Alacant

Now I know what a grand prix fleet looks like. The IOR version, years ago, was genuine but different, very different, from the sight of 23 box-rule 52-footers hitting a start line together. Nine of the boats are new this year, and the rest have been tweaked big-time. You didn't have to have a new boat to win a race at Alacant, the opening event of five on the 2007 Breitling MedCup circuit. Race wins got passed around quite liberally. But you weren't going to do well if there were any holes in your program. Period.

Diedo Yriarte/MedCup

With so many boats racing now, holding your lane off the start line is key, according to Vrolijk, whose design firm, Judel/Vrolijk, wound up with three of the top five places. If you get kicked out of your lane and start chewing on dust, you're going to keep getting kicked and kicked and kicked. The top boats sail higher and faster this year, Vrolijk said, and the facts of that are among other details that you will eventually be able to read in the pages of SAIL magazine. Going into the final day of racing, the Judel/Vrolijk-designed Bribón was leading the pack and looking strong to take the regatta. Two general recalls and a dying breeze later, the day had gone to heck, there was no racing, and the Trofeo Alicante was theirs.

Bribón is sometimes steered by the king of Spain, but pro Bouwe Bekking stepped in for this round. As the shouting died down, he said, "This morning I told the guys we should go out and enjoy it no matter what happened. It is a surprise for us to be here because we were so late with the boat. When you only have two days sailing before you come here, and some of the crew saw the boat here for the first time, you do not really expect to win."

And no, you didn't have to have a new boat to win a race, but some force appeared to favor the nubility. The final standings:

1. Bribón (José Cusi, ESP, Judel/Vrolijk 2007)
2. Valle Romano Mean Machine (Peter De Ridder, MON, Judel/Vrolijk 2007)
3. Mutua Madrilena (Vasco Vascotto, ESP, Botin & Carkeek 2007)
4. Artemis (Torbjörn Torqnvist/Russell Coutts, SWE, Judel/Vrolijk 2007)
5. Patches (Eamon Conneely, IRL, Reichel Pugh 2007)

As a flatfooted American, I was interested in the scene itself, the whole culture of grand prix sailing in Europe, with an event sponsor, a big tent, and nary a yacht club in sight . . .

But, thanks to Siemens, some very nice sightems that might be hard to get authorized, going through the committee at the good old YC . . .

Every race boat has a tender chasing it around, onloading and offloading sails and delivering snacks and water between races. Then taking away anything unconsumed because, of course, water is weight. There are two American boats on the circuit, Doug DeVos with Windquest and John Buchan with Glory. Both are longtime campaigners that need no introduction, and both had a sort of welcome-to-the-MedCup kind of regatta at Alacant. Now they've got that out of the way. Here's Windquest meeting the tender, John Bertrand at the wheel of the raceboat . . .

Alacant (in Valenciano and Catalan) becomes Alicante in Castillan Spanish, and that's how you will see it written most of the time. By using Alacant, I'm just being quirky, as alleged in certain quarters, and letting my Valencian influences rub off. When I said "so long" to Sébastien, who runs my gym, and told him I was off to Alacant, he heard me. And he liked it.

Think of Alacant as a beach resort city in the predictable manner, with lots of unfortunate, medium-rise construction everywhere you look and some wonderful architectural surprises tucked away. A tiny, pedestrians-only old town clings to the side of a mountain topped with a citadel, and of course I took a break from the racing and hiked to the top.

If you've ever been to one of these mountaintop fortresses, you probably were taken by the angles and juxtapositions of natural stone and cut stone . . .

I dig it. But I never was very good with heights, and I noticed here that, the higher I got, the lower the enveloping walls . . .

Here's the same thing with my backpack for scale. I got a bit woogy-wookie just walking up and placing the thing there . . .

Seriously . . .

And here is how the finish of the first coastal race looked from the top of the mountain . . .

A nice touch in Alacant: their tree-lined promenade beside the sea, a tiled walkway running half a mile at least, and you could get seasick looking at it if you're not careful, but it's lovely, and in the evening the locals come down with their folding chairs and take in the scene . . .

Full disclosure: This wrapup of the MedCup opener is written from Barcelona. At least I didn't miss a nailbiter finale. But having been in Spain since early April, and having seen little of Spain beyond Valencia, I decided I owed myself a walkabout in this break between selecting a challenger and the opening race of the America's Cup. Saturday, June 23: first to win five races takes the Cup. And by the way, it's been raining in sunny Spain the last two days. We're not to the Cup yet, but you can bet your best jammies that the Alinghi weather team is trying to push this system out of here by sheer will power.

You won't be seeing pics from Barcelona. This is a sailing blog. But having written so much about Valencia, I am struck by the contrast.

In Valencia the attractions are defined. The old city, the river, the Calatrava architecture at the foot of the river. The rest of Valencia can be relegated to my phrase above, "unfortunate, medium-rise construction." Barcelona, however, just goes on and on with fascinating neighborhoods and beautiful buildings. Very international. Very cosmopolitan. Hip and happening. And filled with tourists. Way too many people who look like me. So as soon as I'm Gaudi'd and Picasso'd to the brim, I'll be happy to get back home to Valencia and put my feet up in my own apartment. I do appreciate Barcelona, however, for having a higher class of street musician, on average, than Valencia.

In Valencia, you see, there's this guy with a cello (as opposed to a celloist) who's been setting up around the corner from El Calle del Editor Cabrerizo, but not far enough around the corner, and he knows about five songs, and he hits all the notes but he doesn't put any music behind the notes, and the night before I left, he was about one Over the Rainbow away from getting that dratted cello wrapped around his neck.

I'll probably leave the blog as-is for a day or two, but I'll be back with you as we close in on showtime, unless I'm in jail—Kimball