Yabba Dabba Doo – The America's Cup

Wave Writer, February 2011.


Russell Coutts, CEO of BMW Oracle Racing, said back in September that the next America’s Cup would “meet the expectations of the Facebook generation, not the Flintstone generation.” Now that the dust has (sort of) settled, it appears true. Brace yourselves, Facebook Generation. According to Ellison and Coutts, the new America’s Cup is going to rock your world. I’d add the NASCAR and Formula 1 generations as well. You won’t have to know squat about sailing to appreciate it. In fact it may be better if you don’t.

 

And for us Flintstones? Will our world get rocked too? Probably not so much.

 

I always liked the Flintstones, and while I use it, I’m not all that fond of Facebook. So Coutts’ comments made me feel a little old and perhaps just a little jilted. After all, a lot of us Flintstones remember seeing the drawings of the “radical” 12-Meter Intrepid in the 60s, watched the drunken celebratory antics of Ted Turner after his victory in the 70s and witnessed the raising of Australia’s skirts in the 80s. Hey, we may be old but it doesn’t feel too good to be cast off as irrelevant. Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?

 

I’m sure Mr. Coutts regrets his comment, at least a little. But it was a window to the next America’s Cup. There are not enough Flintstones for anyone to make a buck in any forthcoming America’s Cup, so something has got to be done to tear the Facebook crowd away from their screens. Or at least have them click onto the America’s Cup once in a while.

 

Will changes to the America’s Cup are going make it a great spectator sport, enrich the organizers and transform the sport from anemic to healthy. I have my doubts all the way around. One thing is for certain, organizers seem to know how to leverage ownership of the event to get what they want from the public sector. Bringing the Cup to San Francisco had greater intrigue and heavy handedness than moving the Sonics to Oklahoma or having new stadiums built with public funding.

 

What Was Decided

 

The America’s Cup is going to be sailed in 72’ catamarans dubbed the AC72 Class. They’re going to have winged mains and “soft” headsails. And while they probably won’t be as fast as the Deed of Gift monsters that sailed for the Cup in February, they’re going to be going to be capable of 30 knots. You’re not going to be out there as a competitor trying to keep up in your Catalina 30 with the 16 HP diesel or, for that matter, your beautiful 9 knot Grand Banks.

 

There are a few other things we know. The boats are expected to sail in 3-33 knots of breeze, which means they’re going to be far more robust than the last time around. We won’t see kids in seven foot dinghies heading out to sea while professional sailors with fragile multimillion dollar boats scamper for shelter. We know that there are going to be no engines running to power winches, so there will be some seriously fit young sailors managing some seriously large loads.

 

We also know that the organizers are putting a lot of emphasis on television and internet coverage, so you won’t ever actually have leave your house to track the event. And you’ll want to get your chips and hot dogs lined up beforehand, because races are only going to last about 45 minutes, with six minute legs. Easily repairable crumple zones are required fore and aft in case of collision, and in fact prefabricated hull and stern sections that can be easily fitted in case of collision. Hey, the occasional crash hasn’t seemed to hurt the popularity of Formula 1 and NASCAR.

 

We know that for the first time ever, the event will be held where a decent view can be had from land. Preliminary sketches indicate that the races will take competitors along the San Francisco waterfront, and according to America’s Cup Race Management CEO Iain Murray, might even finish off Pier 27. Grandstands would be set up.

 

Starting this year, there will be the America’s Cup World Series regattas for teams in the “trainer” AC45 class. These will be speed monsters in their own right, and basically identical so the speed differences aren’t that great. There will be some great sailing in this class.

 

How’d This Happen

 

If the Facebook and Formula 1 generations are interested, Larry Ellison and his Oracle Racing Team did it the old fashioned way, they made a Deed of Gift Challenge. Ellison had tried since the 2003 event to wrest the Cup by battling through the elimination series in IACC class, but never made it as far as the finals. Ernesto Bertarelli and his Alinghi team won the Cup in 2003, defended it successfully in 2007 and then, by most accounts, were getting very heavy handed about how they managed the event, skewing the odds even more than the New York Yacht Club did in its Cup heyday.

 

So Mr. Ellison, aka Oracle software, took a page from Sir Michael Fay’s 1988 “rogue” challenge and made a one on one challenge according the Deed of Gift. After the requisite court rounds, during which time 105’ BMW Oracle was being built right up I5 in Anacortes. Ultimately, the DoGzilla trimaran, as it was affectionately called, and its solid wing sail won two out of three races from a hastily prepared Alinghi catamaran.

 

Ellison, Coutts and company then went out reverse shopping for a new venue. The obvious choice was San Francisco, Ellison’s home town. But wait, some serious concessions would have to be made. After all, what’s a Cup without rich people getting richer while austensibly revitalizing a downtrodden waterfront. It was done San Diego, Auckland and Valencia after all.

 

But of course public officials need some incentive to come up with concessions, and Ellison and company heavily, and very publicly, courted Rhode Island in the weeks leading up to the final decision. Gorgeous San Francisco changed her outfits a couple of times and, well, pretty little Rhode Island was left holding her dance card. And that fiery Spaniard Valencia was never really invited to the ball, though she had been told it was a firm date. Hell hath no fury as mayor spurned, as they say, and Mayor Ria Barbera’ was still hopping mad about it days later. Barbera’ made it clear Valencia wasn’t interested in any consolation “just friends” dates to host the AC World Series: “We are not going to settle for something less that we had before,” she said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the Flintstones

 

As the leader of the ACRM, Iain Murray is kind of a bridge between the old and the new. He’s been in the Cup game since the 12-Meters, and in fact was skipper and designer of the Kookaburra program that unsuccessfully defended the Cup in 1987. “We have to have a respect for the tradition of the America’s Cup,” he says, followed by “We had to do something. This should be the Mount Everest of the Sport” to make the sport more engaging to a wider audience.”

 

“There’s no reason the racing can’t be close,” Murray says. He cites a the limited racing area, boundaries on the course and short legs all conducive to keeping the speedsters close to each other. Again, think Formula 1 car racing. Working with Iain Murray at ACRM is Andy Hindley, who’s managed powerboat racing. The America’s Cup Event Authority (ACEA) is led by Richard Worht and Craig Thompson, who have had great success with the UEFA soccer league.

 

No, it’s not all about sailing any more.

 

Professional sailors, and there aren’t all that many of them, aren’t overly rejoicing about the way this new event is shaping up. So far, there are only four teams signed up, though several more are expected. Catamarans generally don’t require as many folk to sail them as monohulls. Colin Orsini, an Anacortes Native who’s enormously fit and already an amateur winch grinder on Russell Coutts’ RC44 program, doesn’t feel he has much of a shot at making the Oracle team. There just aren’t that many spots available. “You’re going to see a lot of veterans get back into it,” Orsini says.  “There will also be younger sailors who have experience with performance type boats. But you don’t want to just  hire a bunch of kids.”

 

One guy who’s been integral to BMW Oracle’s success is naval architect Paul Bieker, and in fact at press time was flying off to New Zealand for the launch of the first AC45 boat. He’s currently working for the AC organizing authority to figure out how best to take down and put up the wing sail, and hoist the big cats out of the water between events. The AC45 is definitely a learning platform for organizers as well as sailors.

 

Bieker says that one thing that wasn’t apparent to a lot of us watching the trimaran back in February was just how close to the limit they were sailing the boat. The entire boat was rigged with load sensors and fiber optic strain gauges. “The reason you didn’t see the jib come in all the way in race two was that the alarms were going off. They’d trim the jib until the alarms started going off, and then ease a little.”

 

So, does this mean that designing a new 72-footer to sail in 33 knots of wind is going to be a bigger challenge? Not necessarily. “The problem is more constrained, the range of options is reduced,” Bieker says. Hull shape won’t be that critical, he says, “they’ll all be slippery. Expect the big focus to be on aerodynamics above deck. At 40 knots windage is a lot more critical.”

 

So, will Bieker be engineering an AC72? Perhaps, but if it doesn’t happen he won’t be too disappointed. “When you’re doing the America’s Cup, it’s a bit like being in the military,” he says.

 

The View Forward

 

Facebookers will want to set up their RSS feeds, become Friends with Larry Ellison and eventually bookmark the best video sites. You won’t have to look far, this Cup will be made for Internet. When you’re screaming down a hill on your bicycle at 30 miles per hour, remember that at times those catamarans are going to be sailing a lot faster much of the time.

 

Powerboaters, think about a sailboat that you can’t keep up with.

 

Formula 1 and NASCAR fans, get your DVRs set  up.

 

Flintstoners, let’s try not to refer too often to the good old days when we felt some, albeit a remote, connection to the “Everest” of our sport. Yabba Dabba Doo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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