GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

September 30, 2013

Fishtown Local: Cup drama proves a sailor's delight

Fishtown Local
Gordon Baird

---- — OK, it’s finally over and settled:

Yes, the America’s Cup was a long, strange trip. But what an event.

It began with all the enthusiasm for sailors as a colonoscopy.

The general outlook by racers was that Larry Ellison, Oracle’s chief exec, had basically connived and contrived his way into getting the cup in the first place with a legal dipsy-doodle that had a last minute, mini-series (2 outta 3) in Spain four years ago that allowed him to win it through the back door. He then declared a new era and selected a racing technology that he was already years ahead of everyone else in perfecting.

His dream was that San Francisco would serve as the perfect backdrop for the races with its adjacent location to the windiest, flattest, most spectacular conditions in the most advanced tech-boats that money could invent. But it was so expensive ($100 million per team), that it whittled the original 15 teams registered down to only three challengers.

It was also widely believed Oracle would take the Cup in a cakewalk, but it didn’t turn out that way. The New Zealanders took the task very seriously and began training and spending immediately. They assembled a team the equal of the USA’s, matching world champ skipper Dean Barker, a Kiwi, against Oracle’s Jimmy Spithill, also a world champ, an Aussie.

Both were surrounded by all-stars on their crews. They were basically inventing their sport as they went along. But the Kiwis were the first to figure out hydrofoiling, the art of getting the boats — called AC72s — up on slim metal foils and turning the cats into giant ice boats, flying above the water at ridiculous speeds.

They became just plain rocket boats, with two speed modes: out-of-control fast and completely out-of-control fast. The challengers were the first to figure out great foiling technique as early as a year ago and it showed in the early going.

New Zealand easily squashed the USA boat in the opening races, winning the two-a-day races as easily and quickly as swatting flies. The Kiwis were way faster at getting up on their foils than the Oracle team who constantly kept sinking back to the water’s surface with their hulls and dropping their speeds by 10 or 15 mph every time they did.

Speeds? One race, they got up to 53 knots — that’s 60 mph!

The average speeds were around 40 kts for most of the legs, which is close to 50 mph. Some races had 4 and 5 lead changes and were breathtaking to watch, especially when the boats began foiling. New Zealand - as everybody knows by now — built up an 8-1 lead. One more win would do it.

Then two things happened. After its eighth loss, the U.S. team used their one “postpone” card that each team had. They used the rest of the day and the next day off to rework their boat.

They tinkered with the foils and the 13-story fixed wing — like an airplane’s — that powered the cats and they began to go faster than they had. But they had one more race to get hammered in — which saved their butt, as it turned out.

New Zealand got out to a one mile lead — akin to 65-0 lead in football — in a somewhat lighter day that was going to be the clincher. But the time limit on the race expired just as the Kiwi’s rounded the last mark, headed for the gimmie-victory.

The time limit was only 40 minutes. The Americans had suggested the day before that they abandon the artificially short limit and raise the wind limits at which they could race. (Another race had been called off with the Kiwis leading from too much wind.) But the Kiwis emphatically just said “no” to changing anything. That decision would cost them the Cup.

With it 8-1, America began its comeback. Suddenly, the U.S. crew was foiling just as soon as its opponents, and its tactics were much improved. The U.S. had switched in Ben Ainsley as tactician — a four-time Brit Olympic gold medal winner — and he made a number of game-saving calls.

USA ran off win after win, some involving lead changes, others with superior starting. In two of the last three races, New Zealand led after the start and the first two marks. And that’s how the final race began, about as close and exciting as a boat race could be — at 50 mph and inches from each other.

But USA foiled her way by the Kiwis on the upwind leg, using better strategy and tide tactics to pass the challenger. The last lap was a cakewalk.

It was a comeback that had been unimaginable 10 days before, especially trailing by over a mile with the Kiwi’s only a mile from the Cup.

But Larry Ellison turned out to be right about the technology and the locale. It was the most astounding sports viewing one has ever seen, completely space-age futurism that became riveting TV, even if you don’t like sailing. People still love rocketships and that’s why these were — straight out of the race scenes from Star Wars.

Almost all sailors were rooting against Ellison at the start of the regatta, but Team USA won us all over through their grit, never-say-die determination and their adaptability of the technology during the battle to persevere.

That’s inbred in our history — a toast to the winners!

Gordon Baird is a local actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine, producer of “the Chicken Shack” community access television show — and, yes, an avid sailor frequently seen in and beyond Gloucester Harbor.