What’s with the business of keeping our America’s Cup and Volvo boats under wraps until game time? It’s all about the head games, and as silly as they are, I can’t stop playing. Gaining Bearing from our September 2011 issue.
I graduated from Boston University and moved to Newport, R.I., in the summer of 1983, the same summer Australia II took away the America’s Cup and forever changed Newport. We learned then that the Australians were very good at playing the game of keeping secrets. Every time Australia II came out of the water, the team would drape a “skirt” around the underbody, which kept the shape and style of the keel a mystery to prying and curious eyes.
It’s widely known that there was a whole lot of espionage happening along the waterfront that summer. The most intriguing boat by far was Australia II. It didn’t look like the rest of the 12 Meters in town and, on the water, it sure was smoking the competition. There were even rumors that the Australians were sandbagging their races in order to keep the challenger trials close, just so the Americans wouldn’t push to get to the bottom of what was behind the curtain. It was the talk of the town, and the Australians had the mental edge before they ever even started the Cup trials.
The day the Aussies won the Cup, I “borrowed” a dinghy with three friends, rowed under a few piers, and all of a sudden we found ourselves holding on to the side of Australia II as the victory celebration began to boil. It was an unforgettable experience seeing Alan Bond standing on the aft deck of the team’s tender, raising his arms to the sky as the rowdy crowd chanted, “Show us the keel!”
And up she came, the unconventional keel finally in full view: the reverse sweep, the wings, and the camouflage blue paint scheme used to create the illusion of a regular keel. It was an absolutely surreal moment.
And so began a trend. “Skirts” and secrecy became commonplace with the America’s Cup. Everybody did it. Why? Because in each program’s opinion they were hiding something their competition didn’t have. The skirt validates the notion that “we are smarter than the other guys, and, for sure, if someone saw what was behind the veil, then everybody would copy it.”
But that’s some crazy logic, and with the America’s Cup and the Volvo, we’re all guilty of it: all this secrecy is pointless, yet we continue to perpetuate it.
While Australia II did have something legitimate to hide, there was no way anyone could ever get enough of a look to study it carefully. Even if divers could take underwater photos as the boat passed Castle Hill every day, the photos alone would never be enough for any of the challengers to make huge modifications. The skirt had validation.
From then on, though, I’d make a case that all the effort that goes into keeping secrets is ridiculous.
At the following Cup in Freemantle, the majority—if not all—of the 12 Meters had skirts. I could argue that some of the syndicates would have been better off without skirts on their boats—on the basis that others might have copied and ended up being slower.
The reality, however, is that all of these major programs have so much time and money invested in smart people and concepts that, even if they saw what others were doing, 99 percent of the time, they’d rationalize that what the competition was doing was wrong anyway.
Then came the America’s Cup Class Rule, and sure enough, here come the skirts, heavily guarded compounds, and absolute secrecy. Every time the shrouds came down after a syndicate was eliminated, or if the regatta rules mandated public unveilings, sure enough . . . there’s . . . hold your breath . . . a bulb on a keel with small wings on it!
And—gasp—there’s a rudder!
What a load of crap. The reality is the hull shape, rig package, and engineering influence performance far more than any foil veiled behind a skirt. What the skirts don’t hide is usually far more revolutionary. Take, for example, Young America’s wing mast in the 2000 Cup.