Saturday, November 2, 2013

America's Cup Observations

It's clear that the AC/72 boats represent the most significant advances in yacht racing in a generation. While small boats like the Moth have been foiling for years and other large multihulls have been using foils that are adjustable for cant and rake, the 72's are arguably the first to combine foils, wing masts and sophisticated foil control systems in in a truly competitive package. It is also important to note that there were no significant gear failures during the regatta. That is a testament to the highly developed design, engineering and testing programs of both teams. I think this bodes well for the future of the Cup competition. Once again, I have to confess that before the event I was among those who felt that this event could very well be a dismal failure. After witnessing the spectacular racing I changed my mind in this regard.

I watched every minute of the racing on TV and think it was extremely well presented. Journeyman sports announcer Todd Harris did good job in spite of having no real yacht racing experience. Sure, he made a few goofy comments but he also frequently acknowledged his lack of experience in the sport and didn't try to come across as an expert. I thought that was a refreshing departure from previous AC announcers. NBC relied on a cast of true sailing experts to deliver insightful commentary and I thought they all combined to deliver a quality sporting product.

What about the crews? Without access to the inner workings of each team we can only speculate on what occurred within them as the regatta progressed, but the indications are that the American team had not spent nearly as many hours on the water, in the boat they would race in the finals, as the Kiwis did. This became glaringly apparent when a Team Oracle crewman fell overboard before the start of the first race. Another interesting facet of the American team was the body language of two key members of their afterguard, John Kostecki and Tom Slingsby. We don't know what that interpersonal relationship was like but it was obvious that things improved when Kostecki was replaced by Ben Ainsley. This is not to take anything away from Kostecki as he has had  a long and illustrious career as a professional sailor. But sometimes personalities don't mesh regardless of the skills and talents of the individuals and perhaps that's all there was to it. In any case, the shift from Kostecki to Ainsley made a significant difference and in my opinion was a key factor in Oracle's eventual victory.

It was compelling personal drama to see the juxtaposition of confidence in the two crews as Oracle began racking up wins against the Kiwis who came within a few puffs of wind of winning the event when race 13 was abandoned with the ENZ ahead with less than a mile to the finish line. When that race was re-sailed later in the day, the Americans began their improbable march to 9 points and the Cup. As the Kiwis suffered loss after loss their confidence was replaced first by concern, then worry and finally desperation. At the end of the event the strain and despair were evident on the faces of the ENZ team, especially that of Dean Barker, whose helmsmanship could not be faulted except on the starting line where he was frequently bested by Spithill. The Kiwis made few tactical errors and only one glaring boathandling error when they nearly capsized.

It was also interesting to see how the Americans continued to improve daily while the Kiwis seemed to remain constant in terms of boatspeed. I can only attribute that to the fact that Oracle was the faster boat and it took several races for the Americans to learn how to sail it to its optimum potential, while the Kiwis had the slower boat and couldn't get much more out of her.

In the aftermath of the event, Team Oracle accepted the challenge from an Australian group for the next America's Cup competition. We don't know what kind of boats that regatta will be sailed in, but given the spectacular racing we witnessed in AC XXXIV, I'm looking forward to some incredible technological advances and exciting racing in the event to come.

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