Sunday, July 8, 2007

Last Man Standing

I'm resigned to leaving Valencia with one question unanswered.

Would Alinghi have dumped the old AC class—the one that gave us such thrilling racing this time around—if Team New Zealand hadn't given them a scare?

I believe Alinghi skipper/tactician Brad Butterworth 100 percent when he says that the sailors (at the top) are ready for a new type of boat. The other side of the coin is that these guys are talents, and the boat is only a platform, and the world around doesn't really care (and can't tell) if a different boat is 4.3 knots faster. Finally we had come to a point at which start-up teams could bring credible boats and teams to an America's Cup contest and put up a bit of a show. So what's the hurry to change boats, especially if there's a chance of racing again in two years in Valencia?

Unless, of course, you're designing the new rule in-house and giving yourself a head start.

The familiar AC rule was created in the wake of the big boat/catamaran debacle of 1988 and drew upon a confab of international naval architects. The process by which the new rule will be developed was not clarified in last week's press conference, but I got the distinct impression that Alinghi has the task in hand and I needn't worry my pretty little head about it.

So I won't. As near as I can tell, I'm the last man standing in the press corps, and that's possibly the last dog swinging from the lamppost yonder, and America's Cup history is rife with examples of defenders finding ways to give themselves an edge. There's nothing new there.

Granted, things may not be as black as I'm painting them, but assailing the defender is another of the grand traditions of the America's Cup. Those of us whose memories reach all the way back to Newport (we few) have our obligations.

The masts are down on both Alinghi boats, and the base is empty empty empty. The team has gone off to Switzerland with the Cup, for a well-earned celebration, and I note that Sunday was the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Deed of Gift by George Schuyler, who kicked off this whole stream of events by deeding the schooner America's trophy "for friendly competition between foreign countries."

Team New Zealand is equally empty. They had a wind-down barbeque (on Friday, I think?) for family and friends, but I wasn't there (ETNZ, outside of press conferences, talked only to Kiwi journos, or by special appointment, and after Race 7 they locked down hard) so I can't tell you about it except that it was a lot more sedate than the Alinghi victory party.

Over the weekend Jim Hardy (Sir James to me) came around to kill some time while he waited for his airport connection, and we got to talking about how hard it must be now for the New Zealand team. It's not as though they were overwhelmed. They were close enough to taste winning, and part of the mindset of a competitor is to wake up in the morning believing that you're going to win. Losing takes adjustment. Jim said, "At the end of the racing in 1970, I stood at the wheel and I couldn't lift my arms. I had really believed we were going to beat Intrepid and the weight of that just took over. I could not lift my arms."

Kudos to Team New Zealand skipper/helmsman Dean Barker for attending every press conference following a race that he lost. [further preachy soapbox editorial about other people deleted deleted deleted]

Two nights after Alinghi secured the win, I was at The Docks (a restaurant with a different name, but known thus to sailors) and wound up taking post-dinner refreshment with someone who runs one of the former challenger teams (I did not ask permission to say the name, and between the hours of 0100 and 0300, a man has a right to assume his privacy, but I will say that he has no association with any U.S. team), and this fellow was not at all happy with the performance of America's Cup Management over the course of AC 32. To paraphrase, they're newbies, and they’re learning as they go, so they're grabbing every crumb that goes by rather than pursuing a vision of what could be. This individual was likewise underwhelmed by the number of challengers that have become beholden to the defender, generally by taking some form of funding from him, thus ceding a degree of independence. He had a phrase for those teams, but unless you're into breeding dogs you might find it indelicate.

He would know better than I. But even down here in the press gallery I can see that the superyacht regatta should have been in Valencia, not Palma. Just because those guys can afford to pay any price imaginable doesn't mean they will cheerfully take a gouging. So there was space in the superyacht harbor and there were last-minute discounts. And it was patently ridiculous (for example) for ACM to insist (for "branding" purposes) that participants in the Oyster class rally/regatta lower their Oyster fleet pennants before entering America's Cup Harbor. What you do, gents, is send the ACM photographers down, shoot the Oyster pennants flying in the harbor, and use those images to show the sailing world that, yes, this is the center of your world and you should be here too.

Enough. I will assume until it's proved otherwise that ACM can learn. Individually the people come off well enough, but apparently something happens when they call a meeting. Then there's the fact that a lot of things were done right, and the press facilities not only offered everything needed but were staffed by a wonderful group of people who went the extra mile day after day. I walked around, shook hands, and said my thanks to them, but it wasn't enough.

So here we are. Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli has carved himself a big place in the America's Cup story. He revolutionized the game by buying a winning team rather than growing a farm team. Then he revolutionized the game again by introducing pre-event racing, reintroducing fleet racing, dropping nationality requirements, and taking control of the challenger selection racing. With the 90-foot class he's taken another big step. The people I know who are least thrilled with it are professional sailors who thought they saw Cup racing on a secure growth arc, and now they're not so sure.

Okay, Mr. Bertarelli. Show us.

So long for a little while

I love my job.

Don't tell my boss, or I'm hosed, but I've enjoyed doing this daily column even if it's called a blog and even if Got Live was just a drivel of nonsense tossed on top in a hurry.

I have a magazine deadline to meet while I remain comfortably ensconced in my apartment in the old city of Valencia. It beats writing in airports, and besides, I like it here. Today is the Festival of the Virgin of Carmen, and I'm working, not festing, but that doesn't mean I can't decorate. I love flags, and the bandera de Valencia is a flag among flags. Calle del Editor Cabrerizo is too narrow and short for me to stand back very far, but guess which balcony is SAIL-Valencia . . .

Soon I'm going to Bilbao and around on a walkabout, and toward the end of the month, in case I'm still employed, I'm boarding a plane for California. But I get the idea that the home office wants this blog to continue in some form. I think that's an intriguing idea. We haven't figured out the details, or how often such a thing would appear, or what we might call it. But if you're looking for a fix, do drop by farther down the road, and we'll see what we can do for you.

And as always, if you're out sailing, when somebody says
HEADS UP! put your head down—Kimball