America's Cup: The Early Review Is In

From the perspective of a self-proclaimed average Joe match racer, the America's Cup 34 desperately needs an infusion of close racing to add substance to its shiny surface.

Sailing World

AC34 Needs Some Magic

The America's Cup is taking a beating from critics, so in the interest of ameliorating what follows, let's stipulate two worthwhile points:

1) The AC72 is one of the coolest, most interesting sailing machines ever to fly across the water.

And 2) It is possible (if the contenders are very close in performance) that the September America’s Cup match will deliver a thoroughly gripping and dramatic contest that will have sailors across the world experiencing whiplash as they reverse themselves to start singing the praises of Larry and Russell after months heaping abuse in their direction. I know, I know ... that’s not likely. But you can’t totally rule it out, and the truth is that the final verdict on AC34 can only be rendered after the actual match.

Okay, throat clearing over. Now to the wild punditry, since we are now into actual match racing in AC72s, and sometimes there are even two boats out on the course. That means we now have an initial impression (finally!) of what the reality of sailing and racing the America’s Cup in AC72s looks like.

I happened (coincidentally) to be in San Francisco for the opening ceremonies for the America’s Cup. On any given day you could see Emirates Team New Zealand, Oracle Team USA, or Luna Rossa sailing their AC72s on San Francisco Bay. And seeing an AC72 cruising by in the flesh, I mean carbon fiber, is a skin-tingling experience. These are very, very exciting marvels of engineering. Yes, they are on the edge. Yes, they are dangerous and can kill. But they are also sailing machines unlike almost any other; otherworldly, in fact. That is something you instantly grasp as you see one flying by the waterfront, spray fire hosing off the bows, or the foils elevating the entire craft above the chop.

But speed and looks are perishable, and the America's Cup is not mainly about the creation of spectacularly designed museum exhibits. Look at something long enough, and it starts to become ordinary. Experience accelerated speeds long enough, and your senses adjust. I once had the chance to sail across the Atlantic on PlayStation, Steve Fossett's big, record-breaking catamaran. At first, the speed--regularly in the 20s, peaking at about 36 knots--was mind-blowing. But after a few days I was used to it; it was no longer special. I remember looking at the speedo and seeing 17 knots, and thinking, "Man, we are really going slow."

What any America's Cup really needs to succeed, and to captivate, is close racing. The America's Cup is not mainly about pushing design and technology. Innovation and invention is the collateral result of trying to squeeze every micro-knot of speed out of whatever design rule is in play. The essence of the America's Cup, the criterion on which it succeeds or fails, is two boats engaging in a desperate competition to cross the finish line first. No matter how spectacular or transcendent the boat designs--from the J-boats to the AC72s--the drama, theater, and thrill of America's Cup competitions has been proportional to how close and interesting the racing itself has been. That is why the two most celebrated America's Cup competitions to date were the 1983 Cup, in which Australia II slid past Liberty to win the seventh race, and the 2007 Cup, in which races were won or lost by seconds. Tight racing is what makes sailboat racing exciting. It's why even a Flying Scot world championship can be intense.

My reaction to viewing some of the two-boat Louis Vuitton Cup racing has been similar. It's novel that the boats are foiling at 30-plus knots. But you can't squeeze an exciting race out of pure speed. What's more important is that the boats (especially since Emirates Team New Zealand is dominant) are often hundreds of meters apart. And no matter how hard announcers Tucker Thompson and Andy Green tries to make 300 meters sound close, it just isn't. The result: boring racing.

The tactical game--or at least the tactical game that is easily visible to viewers--has been squeezed dry of drama, as well. Take the pre-start, which was mortal, close combat in the IACC monohulls. In the AC72s, the pre-start thrills, including the dial-up, are all but extinct. The speeds of the boats are so great, and they are so fragile and hard to maneuver, that there is no dial-up, no circling, and very little boat-on-boat jousting. Mostly it is one tack or jibe to set up and choose a side, and then a timed run to the line. In fact, the dangers of a collision are so great the rules have been changed to allow the port boat to enter the start area 10 seconds before the starboard entry, specifically to keep the boats from closing on each other. How lame is that? I’ll take a good dial-up and pre-start battle over outright speed and space-age engineering any day.

Out on the course, which is already constricted because it is in San Francisco Bay, the AC72s appear to continue to deaden the tactical aspect of America’s Cup racing. Tacking and jibing an AC72 is so costly that boats seem to choose windward and leeward gates according to which gate requires less boathandling, even if it means simply following the other boat around. And tacking on shifts? Doesn’t seem to happen much. More often the boats appear to sail to the boundaries of the course and tack. Leebow? Nope. Tacking duels? Forget it. Repeatedly bouncing a boat to the less-favored side? Almost never happens (mostly because the two boats are never that close). Yawn.

I am not an expert match racer. And no doubt the sailors onboard would say that there is tons going on that I just don't see (hey, what about putting live mics back on the crew, especially the brain trust? That might make it more interesting for viewers). And I would say: exactly. I am not expert, but I am certainly at least average in what I can see and appreciate. And if I am not seeing much of interest, then lots of sailors aren't seeing much of interest. Maybe non-sailors will be impressed by boats can sail that fast. But lots of things go fast, and 50 mph isn’t that fast compared to a NASCAR race. Losing the core constituency of sailors by trying to make the America’s Cup easier for non-sailors to appreciate (i.e. by dumbing it down and speeding it up) is perilously close to turning out to be the losing proposition skeptics predicted.

Sounds pretty bleak, no? Well, I am not ready to give up on the America’s Cup quite yet. Because there is one thing that could be very intense and interesting: two very closely matched AC72s locked into a match race that brings them "bows to bows" frequently. I don’t know what that would be like, and I don’t know if there is a chance of getting that. But I would definitely like to see it. It’s the only thing that could make this America’s Cup worth watching. And it seems pretty clear that the only hope that it might happen will be in the America’s Cup match itself.

So here’s hoping Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand are uncannily matched in speed and performance. And, at the risk of alienating patriotic Americans, that Emirates Team New Zealand squeaks out a victory and gives the America’s Cup game back to the sailors who love it at a hard-fought, nail-biting, 15 mph.