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Thoughts on a Game-Changing Announcement

Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison have launched a brave new era of America's Cup sailing. What exactly it will look like remains to be seen. Here are a few thoughts from Monday's press function in Valencia and a conference call with Coutts.

September 14, 2010

Sometimes, gathering news in the America’s Cup arena feels like a game of poker. You spend much of the time looking for everyone’s tells and trying to determine whether what’s coming out of his or her mouth is the truth, the spin, or something more nefarious. Of one top sailor, a fellow journalist once told me, “If he agrees with you, and laughs, he’s definitely lying.”

I’m not much good at poker. But I do believe I’ve gotten better at separating the America’s Cup wheat from the chaff after covering this game for nearly a decade. With Russell Coutts, it seems that the more willing he is to talk about a subject, and the more plainly he talks about it, the closer you’re getting to how he truly feels. And if you can get him to show you some bar karate, then you’re really hooked in. So on Monday, when Tim Jeffery, BMW Oracle Racing’s director of communications, tried to shut down a conference call after 45 minutes, and was overruled by Coutts, who said, “I can take a few more questions,” it was a good indication that the most successful America’s Cup sailor in history truly believes the radical changes he has proposed for sailing’s oldest trophy will substantially improve the event. And not because it will give his team a distinct advantage (it will, but maybe that’s not among the team’s prime motivations).

I’ve seen this passion before. In 2003, not long after Coutts won the Cup with Alinghi, he stood in front of the assembled media in Auckland and announced some major changes to the America’s Cup. While they pale in comparison to what was announced yesterday (72-foot, wing-sailed catamarans), they were dramatic at the time and stirred up no shortage of opinions both for and against. I was moved by Coutts’ passion for the trophy, and his drive to bring it into the modern sporting era. While the partnership with Bertarelli would be in disarray a year later, their collective plan for the America’s Cup produced a very successful event (the 32nd America’s Cup).

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Some other thoughts from yesterday’s big announcement:

• The news that the Cup will be held in 2013 is good for a lot of reasons. But it’s not good news for San Francisco’s chances to hold a months-long Cup circus, like in Auckland in 2000 and 2003 and Valencia in 2007. Getting the selected piers ready will take a lot of work. And this work would need to be done within a year or two to allow teams to set up shop. The fact that BMW Oracle Racing remains “in negotiations” with a number of candidate cities means the pressure is on San Fran.

One possibility is that the Cup finals or the last few rounds of the challenger selection series and the finals would be held in San Francisco. This would require less infrastructure due to the shorter nature of the event, and the fact there would be fewer teams involved. The hitch with this plan has always been the fairness of holding the finals in a place with such specific and unique sailing conditions. BMW Oracle Racing might have an advantage if it could tailor its boat for heavy air while the challengers were forced to build more all-around platforms to win their selection series in more moderate conditions. Coutts alluded to this in the press conference.

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• One interesting part of the conference call was when I asked Coutts to describe how match racing in multihulls would be different than what we’ve become used to, but as challenging to the sailors and as entertaining for the fans. This, to me, is the ultimate hurdle. Given that American viewers can tune into NASCAR each week and see people driving cars at 200 mph within inches of each other, building boats that go 20 knots as opposed to 10 knots doesn’t seem like the game-breaking change that will capture Generation X-Box. And if it costs us the chess-like aspect of match racing and the close maneuvering that we love in the leadmines, then it’s a step backwards. But Coutts says this won’t be the case:

“Approaching marks in a high-performance multihull, you really have to sail the boat to its optimum, and if you don’t sail it to it’s optimum, for example, if you change course even in a minor way the performance drops off a lot. So you can imagine how much more precise you have to be in terms of approaching marks. What that does, in many ways, it allows the boat behind attacking to set up a situation that makes it very, very difficult for the boat in front to defend their position coming into the mark. Whereas, in a monohull—and the heavier the monohull the more what I’m saying applies—it’s actually pretty easy to defend a lead position coming into a mark. Both upwind and downwind that will be one of the major changes to the game, and. as a result of that, you’re going to see more passing in those situations.

“Then of course, we say one situation at the top mark of [Race 2 of] the last America’s Cup. That would be, if you were the starboard tack boat, would be a pretty easy position to defend a lead, even if it’s a small lead going around that mark [in a monohull]. So you would’ve have seen a lead change. Whereas in a multihull that’s a whole different game there and it’s very difficult to defend that position.

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“Pre-start is another one, the tack option in a multihull is much more limited than a monohull in a pre-start sense. So that changes the strategy, or the way you achieve the goal, in the pre-start.”

Had we been in the same room, I’m sure Coutts would’ve had his hands side by side maneuvering through a pre-start as we talked.

• BMW Oracle Racing would have a lot more credibility if they stopped describing their plans for 34th America’s Cup as creating a level playing field. It won’t be. After one of the countless press conferences the team held in Valencia, I stood around chatting with the two primary builders of the BMW Oracle Racing trimaran, Tim Smyth and Mark “Tugboat” Turner. As much as they were proud of what they’d achieved, they were also a bit dismissive. They’d learned so much in building the wing that the finished product was in their eyes, dated. “If we had to do it again,” I remember one of them saying, “It would be way better.” That experience will be invaluable as teams build toward the 34th America’s Cup. While every other team will be building their first wing sail, the defenders will be building their second.

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“Everyone’s starting from scratch,” was one of the catch phrases of Monday’s announcement. This isn’t true. It’s not something I’m concerned with. The America’s Cup has never been about creating a level playing field. That’s one of its charms and what separates it from other parity-obsessed sports. I just wish they’d stop trying to convince everyone it’s the case.

• According to Coutts, 100 million Euro should get about the maximum any team can spend on the next America’s Cup. And 40 million Euro should enough for a smaller team to be competitive. Whether that’s low enough to draw in commercial campaigns (i.e. not bankrolled by a billionaire) remains to be seen. But cutting costs is necessary, and if these numbers hold true, this would be a significant move in the right direction. If you’re thinking that the use of Euros as opposed to Greenbacks is another sign this circus could be sailed mostly in Europe, I wouldn’t disagree.

• This coming weekend, Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth are to be the honorary event co-chairs for the induction ceremony to the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. Joining navigators extraordinare Halsey Herreshoff and Mike Drummond will be Simon Daubney, Warwick Fleury, Murray Jones, and Dean Phipps. Collectively, these four Kiwis did much of the heavy lifting for Coutts and Butterworth’s America’s Cup successes. During the conference call, Coutts mentioned numerous times how, of late, America’s Cup sailing has looked like a senior circuit due to the number of grey-haired sailors, and how he hopes the 72-foot catamaran will be so athletic as to inspire an infusion of youth into the regatta. I wonder what his longtime mates will think about Coutts trying so hard to put them out to pasture. My guess is, at least, Sir Russell will be buying the rounds late night at the Candy Store.

• The concept of a Youth America’s Cup held in the one-design 45-foot catamarans that will, initially, serve as training platforms for the syndicates, is the part of plan I view with the most skepticism. The concept is admirable, however, I have a hard time seeing it succeeding, even with substantial financial support from the Cup itself. The Cup is such a one-off in the world of sailing. It survives almost solely on it’s own apparent wind. Trying to develop from scratch a similar event will be a difficult task.

• The most interesting nugget from the conference call came when San Francisco journalist Michelle Slade asked if Coutts had heard of any other American teams forming.** “It’s more than a rumor,”** Coutts replied, apparently confirming rumblings that had, to date, been so quiet that few if any of the reporters on the call had heard them. Even Slade was taken by surprise. We’ll see if we can find out more about this in the coming weeks. But a defender series would be great news!

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