Sunday, November 11, 2007

My Dysfunctional Family

I love my dysfunctional family—the family of sailors—but in times like these I'm glad to be out of the newspaper business where I once had a job explaining "family matters" to the great unwashed. It's hard enough just wrapping my little mind around flipflopping events at the politics-as-usual ISAF Annual Meeting in Portugal, which left Olympic futures miasmic as ever, and the newly-released, fairer-I-think, but way-doggies complex format for America's Cup 33, which could yet be wiped away by a court judgment rendering the whole scheme moot, which is a story in itself and . . .

And meanwhile, if I walk down to the water, San Francisco Bay smells like oil. Boats held in harbor. All three weekend regattas cancelled.

So where to begin.

Olympic selection? Before you weigh in, be clear. Are we talking about an obligation to represent the diversity of the sport, or about cranking up the action as a marketing tool? Change the question and you change the answer. Sailing is very much about "what" we sail. There is no other sport where being part of the Olympics has so much power to influence—or even distort—the game. And no other sport is so dependent upon outside, fickle forces (weather, my friend) for how it feels to play, who is favored on the day, and how exciting it looks (or doesn't). Most of the television-viewing public still doesn't know that sailing is part of the Olympics, and the 2008 Games won't change that one bit, nor will any action presently on the table for 2012.

America's Cup? The 19th century Deed of Gift, specifying a defender-challenger format, defies every attempt to streamline a rational, 21st century professional sports event. We've come a ways toward balance and fairness from Alinghi's "you are all my prisoners" protocol released last July, and what is now proposed ought to produce an exciting 33rd match (subject to events still pending in court). I'm just glad it's not my job to explain to nonsailors why sailing's high-profile event is put together this way. The last time the question arose, at a friend's cocktail party, I excused myself "just for a moment," ducked into a different room, and didn't go back.

OK, Olympics

I see that the UK delegation (RYA) has published its Olympic categories vote and its rationale. As I write, that is not the case with US Sailing.

Last week, when the Events Committee proposed dropping the category of Men's Keelboat (in effect, the Star) from the 2012 lineup, there was a chorus of protest that the largest segment of sailing—keelboat sailors—had been "disenfranchised." When the larger ISAF Council met and disregarded the advice of its advisory committee, and dropped the Multihull category instead (in effect, the Tornado catamaran), that gored a different ox. Now we have the multihull world distributing links to online petitions to reverse the decision, coupled to statements such as this one, copied from the UK Catamaran Racing Association, declaring that ISAF:

"Voted against the fastest boat at the Games, the only Event Open to both Men and Women, a permanent [sic] fixture for three decades, the recommendation of its own Events Committee, the strong endorsement of the host nation, and a sport invented in Britain.

"The international catamaran community is shocked at the ISAF decision. 'The bottom line right now is that Multihull sailing has no seat at the ISAF table. And, ISAF has voted that it is a monohull organization,' according to Mike Grandfield (US), Chairman of the International Tornado Association, the Olympic Multihull."

Perhaps there is a touch of hysteria in the phrasing, but these are articulate arguments based upon assumptions that Olympic sailing should represent the diversity of the sport of racing under sail. Perfectly valid arguments, on their own terms, aimed to counter other arguments/other choices that are, in turn, aimed at satisfying those involved in the selected categories while accepting that others will be conspicuously dissatisfied.

Australian David Brookes, ISAF representative for Hobie Cats, was quoted thus: “It is disappointing as we did have the votes until the US Delegation did a 'deal' with the 470 Class at the expense of the multihulls.”

Check out the distribution of votes.

Men – top six events selected

One person dinghy – Men (36 votes)
Windsurfer – Men (35 votes)
Two person dinghy – Men (34 votes)
Two person dinghy high performance – Men (34 votes)
One person dinghy heavy – Men (33 votes)
Keelboat – Men (23 votes)
out Multihull – Men or Open (21 votes)

Women – top four events selected

One person dinghy – Women (35 votes)
Windsurfer – Women (34 votes)
Two person dinghy – Women (31 votes)
Keelboat match racing – Women (21 votes)
out Two person dinghy high performance – Women (20 votes)
out Multihull – Women (3 votes)

Women's match racing? Hmm. Didn't we try match racing in Solings? Once?

But what was driving ISAF's decision to cut Olympic events from 11 to 10? Pressure from the IOC, which comes hand-in-hand with pressure to give good TV. And the assumption stands that sailing as a sport has been failing to give good TV, so have we moved the ball? Would any of the other proffered outcomes have made a dramatic difference to the big picture of Olympic sailing? Of course not. I don't compare this to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It's more like rearranging deck chairs on a ship that goes endlessly back and forth across a stream of frittering chatter, on a course to noplace visionary, with a helm that has more play than solid feel.

OK, the America's Cup

Notwithstanding the ISAF Annual Meeting in Portugal, the center of the nautical world this past week was Barcelona, Spain. The Barcelona World Race got under way on Sunday--PRB grabbed an early lead in a tight pack—from the site of the huge annual boat show, Salon Nautico, at the foot of the famed strolling boulevard, Las Ramblas, and right in the shadow of the city's grand monument to Columbus.

Salon Nautico was the venue for several Cup-related press conferences, including a Friday session that laid out a new set of plans, dates, and formatting for an America's Cup 33 match beginning July 18, 2009. Maybe.

Had the plans released on Friday been the starting point, there might not have been sufficient consternation to inspire the court case that is still outstanding re. the validity of Club Náutico Español de Vela to serve as challenger of record. That validity remains in question, however, and if there is any movement toward an out-of-court compromise between Alinghi and BMW Oracle, I've missed the signs. It seems that we may yet get to hear Justice Cahn deliver his ruling in the commercial division of the New York Supreme Court.

Returning to my earlier theme, that I dread explaining America's Cup matters to nonsailors, or even to sailors who don't obsessively follow every turn of events, the format promulgated in Barcelona does not paint a picture of a sudden change for the easier.

The desire to reinvent Cup racing to function as a Formula 1 of sail, combined with the requirement to end up with a defender-challenger finale, necessarily produces a mutant. But trust me, as Plan B, this represents progress over Plan A. Should the judge rule in favor of BMW Oracle, and should further negotiations then fail between BMW Oracle and Alinghi, we could see a match in 10 months between 90-foot catamarans. Otherwise, AC 33 could look a lot like what's below. (Noting that this assumes a field of 10 teams)

ACM aims to limit costs for competitors through outlawing two-boat testing (the only permitted opportunity for one AC90 yacht to sail alongside another is when racing in ACM organised Practice Race or the Event), introducing “no-sail periods” and limiting the total number of sails produced. All this has been decided through consultation and in agreement with all five entered Challengers and the Defender.

A further major difference to previous America’s Cup events is the competition format. The 33rd edition will be divided into four phases: Acts, Trials, Challenger Selection Series and the America’s Cup Match, with the Defender being able to compete in the Acts, the Trials and the Match, but not in the Challenger Selection Series.

The cost-curbing two-boat testing ban in this edition has as a consequence that the Defender participates in the Trials phase leading up to the Challenger Selection Series. It is recognised as vital however that Alinghi does not impact the selection of the final Challenger and the format of the Trials is designed to achieve this.

Practice Racing has been introduced as a replacement for two-boat testing. Any team can request a practice race and the regatta director will arrange an official practice series. This will be a carefully organised schedule publicised well in advance and providing equal opportunity for all Challengers who wish to participate. These are due to start as early as October 2008 and will continue up until April 2009. They will include a mixture of fleet and match racing round robins.

Event format and schedule (based on a 10 team scenario)

End of June/ July 2008: Act 1, in Valencia (fleet & match race in ACC V5 yachts)
September 2008: Act 2, location in Europe tbc (fleet & match race in ACC V5 yachts)
April 2009: Act 3, in Valencia in AC90 (fleet race) (tbc)

Results from the Acts do not carry forward into the Trials. However, aside from the exposure and prestige gained, there are bonuses with regards to sail allocation for 2009. If teams compete in the 2008 Acts, they gain five sails on top of their 45 sail allocation for 2009. The overall winner of the 2008 Acts gains an additional two sails and the second placed competitor gains one extra sail.

- Round Robins 1 and 2
Starting on May 2nd 2009, they will result in a ranking that includes all Challengers and Alinghi. The six top ranked teams proceed into the Semi Final. The remaining teams proceed into a parallel fleet racing event called the ‘Challenger Sail Off’, the results of which go towards the final ranking and therefore the net surplus distribution.

- Semi Final
May/June 2009: Three Rounds of the Semi Final (between the top six teams of the Round Robins) will result in a Challenger ranking. Number 1 in the ranking goes straight to the Challenger Selection Final, whilst there will be a Repechage between the 2nd and 3rd placed Challengers. Alinghi moves to the parallel ‘Secondary Series’ at this stage.

Challenger Selection Series
The Challenger Selection Series starts in late June 2009 with the Repechage. The winner of this goes on to meet the top ranked Challenger in a best-of-seven Challenger Selection Final in July. The winner of the Challenger Selection Final becomes the Challenger and goes on to meet Alinghi in the America’s Cup Match on the 18 July 2009.

Concurrent with the Challenger Selection Final, Alinghi and the newly eliminated Challengers race two Round Robins of a parallel event called the ‘Secondary Series’. Results from this determine the final ranking of these Challengers.

The 33rd America’s Cup Match
Starting on 18 July 2009, the best Challenger will face the Defender in a best of nine match race series.

The unsubtle scent of oil on the water

Even my neighborhood beach, on the Golden Gate Strait and oceanside from San Francisco Bay proper, has a scent of oil with gobs of globules of tarballs in the sand where the Park Police tell me I'm no longer allowed to walk. There are worse concentrations at Angel Island and Alcatraz, for example, and the problem extends up the coast at least as far as Bolinas Lagoon. And they told as at first that the container ship that hit the Oakland Bay Bridge last Wednesday (outbound for South Korea) had spilled 140 gallons of bunker fuel. The new estimate is 58,000 gallons, a factor of about 414 to 1 and enough to make this the worst ship spill in a long while.

Because of a decades-ago collision of two tankers that caused a devastating spill in the bay, San Francisco shipping is now guided by a Vessel Traffic Service that monitors the movements of all large or commercial vessels, and every ship inbound or outbound has a San Francisco Bar Pilot on the bridge. According to the latest news reports, VTS notified the pilot of the Cosco Busan that he was on a collision course with the bridge pilings, and he responded that, according to ship's instruments, "I'm heading directly for the center of the span."

Instead he found one edge of the span. I am reminded of an old aviator's maxim: It is important to fly in the center of the air; it is very difficult to fly on the edge of the air.

Source, US Coast Guard

From a report in The San Francisco Chronicle:

The Coast Guard has been under fire since Wednesday, when the container ship Cosco Busan rammed a Bay Bridge tower and spewed 58,000 gallons of heavy, gunky bunker fuel into the bay. The ship hit at 8:30 a.m. and the fuel all spilled forth within 30 minutes - but it wasn't until 4:49 p.m. that Coast Guard investigators realized that 58,000 gallons were in the water.

The agency then waited until 9 p.m. to issue a public advisory about the magnitude of the spill.

By then, the oil had spread to beaches all along the San Francisco waterfront and was surging out the Golden Gate. In the days that followed, the oil fouled a 40-mile stretch of shoreline.

You might have guessed - there are lot of unhappy people around SF Bay right now—Kimball