Monday, September 10, 2007

Scouting the Outer Limits

Steve Fossett is—or was, we don’t know yet, but he's missing—a great sailor. He was also different. A great pilot and balloonist, but different in those worlds too.

Fossett's transatlantic-record navigator, Stan Honey, recalls, "It was the challenge that Steve cared about. After he had set all the records he could on Playstation I asked him if he would get a different boat. He looked at me as if I were crazy."

So it wasn't about sailing, exactly. It was about a drive to set records. Most of them, Fossett knew, would be broken eventually. No matter, as long as he'd been there, done that. He held Pacific sailing records, Atlantic sailing records, and a round-the-world sailing record. Playstation's 2001 transatlantic crossing was the first to break five days, and it was an amazing feat in its moment. The giant catamaran, after months on weather watch and multiple false alarms, hooked into the leading edge of a storm and rode it all the way across the Atlantic, sailing in high wind over yet-to-be disturbed, smooth water ahead of a moving maelstrom.

© Claire Bailey

A year later, on his sixth try, Fossett completed the first circumnavigation by balloon. No one can take that first-ever accomplishment away from him, or the first solo, nonstop, round-the-world airplane flight. Fossett's 115 records spanned the range to triathlons and dogsledding.

His cat also set an east-west transatlantic record, and Fossett's 58-day circumnavigation in 2004, with a crew of 12 and with the boat re-named Cheyenne, knocked six days off the previous best. (The boat's most recent appearance was made sans mast as a transpacific cameraboat for Roy Disney's Morning Light movie.)

Steve Fossett was 63 years old and searching (perhaps) for a lake bed for a jet-powered land-speed record attempt when his single-engined plane disappeared over western Nevada on Labor Day. I interject "perhaps" because I am updating this post internally, and as of Tuesday, September 11, the search has adjusted its focus. It now seems possible that the flight was purely a pleasure outing, not a search mission, and efforts are focused within a 30-mile radius of the departure point.

Hopes continue that Fossett might be found alive, but with those hopes dwindling, I dialed up Stan Honey to ask what it was like to sail with this singular individual. I found Stan in the UK, where he has taken on the role of technical director to the new British challenge for the America's Cup, Team Origin.

[more AC stuff at bottom, but why rush?]

"Steve wasn't a sailor the way a lot of us are," Honey said, "but he never stopped being an unassuming good guy while becoming a famous rich guy. It was normal to him to go to dinner with a bunch of mechanics in blue jeans, and if he talked about himself at all it was something self-effacing, like how he swam the English Channel and set a record for the slowest crossing in history.

"He may also have been the toughest person I've ever known," Honey said, "just in terms of tolerating physical discomfort and going days without sleep. He trained for that. If you talked to Steve about growing up, you got the idea that joining the Boy Scouts was a turning point. Scouting gave him a feel for the outdoors and a vision for meeting challenges. He was an Eagle Scout, and he stayed with Scouting his whole life. If you talked to him about business, you got the idea that, to him, it was something he had to do so that he could finance these other things. He went to school, became a programmer, and figured out that it wasn't going to get him there, so he developed an algorithm for trading commodities. Once he had enough money, he lost interest."

Another American sailor in Fossett's international transatlantic-record crew was West Marine's Chuck Hawley. For him, the defining feature of Steve Fossett is that the man, "Was never just along for the ride. He was focused, he was a co-navigator, he slept the least-possible amount of time, and if there was a sail to be changed he was up there on the trampoline getting the new one up and the old one down.

"Imagine, I show up at the Monterey [California] airport, and Steve drives up in this exotic car, and then we take off with Steve at the controls of the fastest jet a civilian can buy—he has a co-pilot, and they trade off, but again, he's never just along for the ride—and we're flying to Orange County to pick up Gino Morelli and then we were headed for the East Coast.

"People know that Steve was making plans for a land-speed record. What's not well known is that there is also this highly-modified helicopter ready to go for helo records because Steve had that in the works too. It's amazing the variety of skills that Steve Fossett developed, amazing when an individual gets to the top of the game in any one of them, and he did it in so many."

Despite the new focus on areas close to Fossett's departure airport, the possible search area covers some 17,000 rugged, canyon-strewn square miles of western Nevada, with supplemental searches being conducted out of Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch near the popular soaring areas of Minden, Nevada. The Internet public is invited to participate thus:

Internet satellite image analysis: 'The 'Amazon Mechanical Turk' internet-based satellite image analysis project continues in its efforts to find Steve. To offer your help, please go to:

Amazon Mechanical Turk

"There you will be shown sample images of a similar aircraft and an actual recent single satellite image to review. You will be asked to note if there are any objects that resemble an airplane (or a damaged airplane) like the Super Decathlon Steve was flying on Monday. Please file your report through Amazon Mechanical Turk - they will vet and cross reference your findings and contact us if information is pertinent."

Is the NY Court composed of Solomons, or are these people always this happy?

You decide. As I understand it, the motion before the Supreme Court for the State of New York, heard Monday, had two parts. Golden Gate YC, challenging with Larry Ellison's BMW Oracle, asked the court to 1) expedite the timing of an eventual hearing on the merits of its case against Société Nautique de Genève, America's Cup defender with Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi; 2) rule on GGYC’s request to enjoin SNG to select a location for the Deed of Gift match and to provide a copy of the sailing rules that will apply for that match. I'm sort of doubtful that the Oracle legal team expected action on #2, but if you're going lawyering, why not offer the opportunity?

When that much was said and done:

Alinghi sounded pleased as punch with yesterday's court ruling on America's Cup proceedings:

After a brief hearing in the New York Supreme Court today before Justice Cahn, the Société Nautique de Genève is pleased to announce that the Judge did not grant the Golden Gate Yacht Club’s application for an injunction, and instead ordered the parties to submit written legal arguments designed to dispose of the case in the shortest possible time. The Judge set the 22 October as the date to hear legal arguments to resolve the central issue, which focuses on the validity of Club Náutico Español de Vela, the Spanish challenge, accepted by the SNG after winning the 32nd America’s Cup.

The Spanish challenge, CNEV, also advised the Court that it will intervene in the case as a party so as to reinforce and confirm its legal standing as Challenger of Record for the 33rd America’s Cup.

Importantly, this is the second successful legal outcome in only a matter of days, following the America’s Cup Arbitration Panel’s ruling over the weekend that declared legitimate the Challenger of Record, and that the 33rd Protocol complies with the Deed of Gift.

“Naturally we are pleased with this outcome which is another welcome positive result in this unfortunate legal process,” said Hamish Ross, Alinghi General Counsel, adding: “As we had asked the Court, SNG will be submitting, as planned, its motion to dismiss the case entirely, and we look forward to having an opportunity to clear this matter up as quickly as possible on the date set by the Court. We now need to draw a line under the uncertainty and damage created by the Golden Gate Yacht Club and BMW Oracle Racing’s actions and focus on the future.”

And the BMW Oracle Racing folks sounded equally pleased:

The Supreme Court of the State of New York today ruled that it would hear argument on October 22 on the validity of the challenge that has produced the proposed protocol for the next America’s Cup.

“We are very pleased with this decision, as we are keen to see this issue properly resolved with a minimum of further delay,” Tom Ehman, Head of External Affairs for GGYC’s team, BMW ORACLE Racing, said.

“During the hearing, the court suggested that the parties engage in mediation to resolve all disputes. This is a course that we continue to support,” Ehman said.

“Our strong preference remains to negotiate a solution. If this is not possible, today’s decision provides for swift resolution through the courts.”

He said the team strongly favors an America’s Cup regatta like the last one sailing in monohulls, and had supported seeking a quick legal resolution so that all participants could know the outcome of the case as soon as possible.

The San Francisco club alleges that the current America’s Cup Defender, Société Nautique de Genève (SNG), is in breach of its duty under the Deed of Gift that governs the Cup. It says SNG has accepted a challenge from an invalid contender, and is seeking to impose an unprecedented one-sided set of rules that unfairly advantage the defender to the detriment of all other competitors.

So, not much happened yesterday, nor was it ever in the works to expect a lot to happen yesterday. Whichever side you're on, the show opens now, with filings to come and the first-possible ruling on October 22.

I note that Farr's recent signing to design for Desafio Español includes no pesky Argentinian sidekicks—Kimball