Break Out the Whomper

Will life imitate art in the 33rd America's Cup? Will the Whomper actually fly when the 90-footers hit the course? That and other thoughts about the future of sailing's big event.

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Stefano Gattini/acm

During a brief lull in the chaos that followed Alinghi's 1-second win in the deciding race of the 32nd America's Cup, I looked across my desk at the media center in Valencia, Spain, toward fellow journalist Kimball Livingston."Hey Kimball," I said. "At least the final race in Wind looks a lot more believable now." For those of you who don't remember or haven't seen the movie-if it's the latter, what are you waiting for, movies about sailboat racing don't come around all that often-the final race in the movie started in a good breeze, which then died to a whisper before improbably returning to full strength for the climactic conclusion. Up until Race 7 of the Cup last July, I'd never seen an America's Cup race that had even come close to that level of wind-related wackiness.I knew Kimball, who is an editor for Sail magazine, would appreciate the quip because he was one of creative forces behind the movie and, along with Roger Vaughan and Jeff Benjamin, is credited with writing the story. We shared a quick laugh and then got back to the business of trying to put what we'd just seen on paper.The movie-which will always hold a special place in my heart, at least partially because I saw it with the entire Dartmouth College Sailing Team and a few bottles of cheap wine during my final year of school-made a triumphant return to my consciousness the other day as I listened to a press conference Alinghi had scheduled to talk a bit about the decidedly cloudy future of sailing's grand prize. Skipper Brad Butterworth was talking about the new class of boats that Alinghi is determined to bring to the regatta. "You've got these carbon boats, 90 feet on the waterline, so they're going to be pretty fast," he said. "You'll have to have reasonably big crews, they're going to have to be athletic…There'll just be clouds of sail. We're thinking about not even measuring the size of the downwind sails, just letting the boats carry what they want."As soon as the words were out of his month, another scene from Wind came crashing out of the memory banks. I could hear Jennifer Grey shouting to Matthew Modine as they sailed down the final run in the final race, trailing the Australian defender, "You've got to put up the Whomper."The Whomper was a monstrous spinnaker Grey had designed, so nicknamed because when it filled it was supposed to go, "Whomp!" It was a masthead kite-12 Meters carry fractional spinnakers-but that didn't matter because the two skippers, played by Modine and Aussie Jack Thompson, had decided to throw out the rulebook for the final race. (This all makes sense in the movie, at least according to cinematic standards.)So while Butterworth talked on about the new class of boat, I envisioned a final run sometime in 2009 when the trailing boat, desperate to make a pass, pulls out some ridiculously large spinnaker. Hopefully Kimball will be within earshot so I can say, "Look Kimball, they're flying the Whomper!" (To see the Whomper fly, click the You Tube link below)Of course, that wasn't the only thing I took away from Alinghi's Q&A. So here are a few random thoughts on the current state of America's Cup.• If the 33rd America's Cup turns out to be one-fifth as exciting as the 32nd, I think sailing should consider itself lucky. From 1992, when the first Cup contest in the America's Cup Class was sailed, through 2003, the losers in the four Cup matches won a grand total of 1 race. With a new rule, a very short time frame, and a prohibition on two-boat testing, chances are one team will get it right and be faster than the rest and we'll have a one-sided Cup match. I asked Butterworth what he thought about this, and what they might do to hopefully ensure a competitive match. He didn't duck the question, but he didn't exactly answer it either. • After listening to Alinghi counsel Hamish Ross name a half dozen yacht clubs that challenged for the Cup and shared a similarly insubstantial quality to Club Nautico Español de Vela, which is the sponsoring club behind challenger of record Desafio Español, I have less confidence in Oracle Racing being able to successfully prosecute its suit against Alinghi and the Societe Nautique de Geneve. For the record, the clubs Ross mentioned were: Sun City YC, which sponsored Alan Bond's Australian challenge in 1977 and was created to spur interest in a property development in Perth, Canada's Secret Cove YC, which according to Ross was newly formed when it challenged for the Cup and had its annual regatta after its challenge was accepted; Japan's Nippon YC, which was formed to challenge for the Cup, no longer exists, and was never incorporated; the Australian YC, which sponsored Syd Fisher's campaign in 1995; the Southern Cross YC, which John Bertrand formed to sponsor the ill-fated OneAustralia syndicate, and was incorporated after its challenge was accepted; and the Cortez Sailing Association, which was run out of a bar and backed Dennis Conner's challenge in 2000. Ross also noted that the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, which challenged for the Cup in 1987 and 1992, won it in 1995, and defended it successfully in 2000 before losing it in 2003, wasn't incorporated until 2003. • However, even if Ellison's suit is dismissed, he's already scored a few partial victories. While Alinghi has seemed to make a point of never actually capitulating to specific Oracle requests-and would no doubt deny that it has made any changes to appease its archrival-many of the points of contention have been tweaked to make them less objectionable. Case in point is the development of the new rule under which the 33rd event will be sailed. At the press conference two days after Alinghi won the Cup, Butterworth said this when asked about how the new rule would be created. At the time it sounded very much like something that would be done behind closed doors at Alinghi, Inc. On Wednesday, he outlined a much more inclusive process, including regular consultations with the announced challengers. He also had his to say when I asked him whether Alinghi had done any work on a new design-as has been rumored.• I'm still torn on whether the prohibition on two-boat testing is a good idea. I like the fact that it will help to level the playing field and make the small teams more competitive. It would also be great to see the Cup teams sharpening their chops on other boats (TP 52s, the match-race circuit, etc.) rather than doing in-house racing all the time. But I wonder if teams will be able to get their boats up to speed, test out innovations, etc., without being able to line-up with a trial horse.The logic behind the decision to have Alinghi race in the challenger selection series is sound, Alinghi would be at a huge disadvantage if it had to sail by itself while the challengers raced against each other, but it's going to be a messy situation. If the races against Alinghi don't count in the overall standings, there'll be no reason for teams to race. In fact, I don't see why they wouldn't just cross the starting line and drop out with a "breakdown." Why risk the boat in a race that doesn't count? Why help Alinghi get better? If they do count in the overall standings then the defender could end up influencing the results of the CSS. Let's just say on the final day of the round robins, Alinghi is facing a team that is battling with Ellison's group for the final spot in the semifinals. Do you think there's some motivation for Alinghi to throw its race, hoping to knock Ellison out of the competition? I certainly do.