Where Have the Tacking Duels Gone?

The multihulls of the America's Cup have speed and excitement, but Tim Zimmermann finds the subtleties of match racing tactics and strategy to be lacking.

Sailing World

the America's Cup

Match racing at the America's Cup World Series just hasn't been cutting it for Tim Zimmermann.2012 ACEA/Gilles Martin-Raget

Stu explained why he declined to watch the ACWS the other night. I guess I should explain why I am worried I may decline to watch the America's Cup Match itself. Well, let's be real. I'll watch it. But I am worried that it's going to be boring.

Here's why. To me, sailboat racing is at its most exciting when it involves multiple related dimensions, ideally: boatspeed, boathandling, boat-on-boat tactics, and strategy. Boatspeed is driven mainly by design, boat prep and boathandling. Boathandling is how your crew handles the sails and one another, and is key to both boatspeed and boat-on-boat tactics. Boat-on-boat tactics is how you play situations in which boats are close together, at the starts, during roundings and crosses, and at the finish. And strategy is about playing the weather, the wind, the tide, and the racecourse.

The America's Cup has always been a game that is driven mostly by boatspeed (and especially the design component of boatspeed). But it has always been at its best, and most fun to watch, when it maximizes the other dimensions. In the 12-Meter and lACC eras, speed was king, but boathandling, boat-on-boat tactics, and gamesmanship and strategy could make up for differences in speed. (Dennis Conner almost beat a faster boat--Australia II_--with a slower boat--_Liberty.) More important, if speed was evenly matched, they became the keys to victory. And often relative speeds between boats were close enough to guarantee close combat, with required exquisite tactics and boathandling, and put enormous stress on the crews and brain trust to perform flawlessly. That's sport.

With the modern, multihull AC, speed and design are again king, or maybe galactic emperor. This element has been elevated above all else. The boats are mindblowing fast, which creates a spectacle in itself. The boathandling on the extreme machines is monstrously challenging, requiring greater endurance and athleticism than ever before, and when there is a mistake there could be catastrophic and TV-friendly (read NASCAR-like crash) consequences. But I have long feared that AC racing in fast multihulls would greatly diminish the part of the game that most sailors understand and love--boat-on-boat tactics, and course strategy. I tried to keep an open mind, waiting to see what the AC45s looked like in action, and how the match racing game would change (though the AC 33 racing between Oracle's big tri and Alinghi's big cat was kind of boring and not very encouraging). Now, however, I think I may have seen enough to think that in order to try and make the AC game exciting and palatable to a general audience with extreme machines and crazy speeds, it is being ruined for sailors.

Take the recent ACWS that Stu ditched to watch a cycling race. The match race final was between Russell Coutts and Jimmy Spithill. It featured 3 lead changes and only 1 second separated the boats at the finish. In short, it sounds about as good as a match race can get, and should have been pretty darn exciting. But if you watch it, not so much. Here, check it out (start at 8:20).

What you see is a couple of things. First, you see a match race start that is mostly about being the leeward boat at the pin (so you are the inside boat at the first rounding). No major suspense over what side of the start line and course a team wants, and how that reveals itself over the course of the countdown. Sure, becoming the leeward boat involves good boathandling and good tactics. But it doesn't involve a dial-up, and in the match racing I have watched, it doesn't involve a lot of very tight, boat-on-boat jousting, with crews shouting and cussing at one another. It's more of a positioning battle, followed by a timed run to the line.

You also see a game in which tacks and gybes are so costly in terms of distance (in the multihulls, boatlengths are lost) that you have to have a very good reason to get on another board. Windshifts, and especially wind pressure, are still very important, so what side of the course you are on counts. But tacking duels are rare, and so is the old game of repeatedly bouncing your opponent back to an unfavored side of the course, while he tries to sneak in front on speed or a favorable wind shift, and then making him suck your gas into the windward mark.

Is this enough for you?

The new AC courses have boundaries to try and push the boats back together, but there is just not that much action when they do converge. Mostly I have seen boats pick a side, leg out to the boundary, tack or gybe to come back, and hope they got it right. And when the two boats do come together, more often that not the only suspense is over who will cross ahead. In the old game, there was suspense about who was ahead, and what would they do with that advantage. There was also suspense over how closely to cover an opponent who is behind. The covering in the AC45 game is not that obvious.

I fully accept that on the boats, to the sailors, all the tactics and boat-on-boat stuff probably seems as challenging as ever. And I love all the cameras and mics. But to an outside viewer who is an avid sailor (though not a championship caliber sailor), it just isn't as much fun to watch. Raw speed is cool to see the first time, and maybe even the second. But when the speed thrill wears off, what do you have left? Two boats zipping around the ocean, often separated by distance, and rarely mixing it up. It says something about the underlying structure of the game when you have to use boundaries to force the boats back together, and a lot of graphics technology to turn the viewing experience into a video game.

I hope I am wrong, and I guess if you want to attract a non-sailing audience it makes sense to amp up the straight-line speed and dumb down the sailing subtleties. But so far, a good IACC dial-up--or starting, tacking and gybing duel, for that matter--has more suspense than anything I have seen in the ACWS match racing (the fleet races, on the other hand, can be pretty thrilling). Throw in the fact that there just won't be that many AC 72s in the hunt, and it's enough to wish we could all go back to Auckland, circa 2007.

UPDATE: At least Ellison and Coutts's plan to attract casual viewers seems like it could pay off. One casual sailor recently posted this commentary regarding the recent ACWS in San Francisco.

I was enthralled. The racing was fast and exciting; the races themselves were quick, easily accessible affairs that differed quite a bit from the long, dull downwind legs I remember from my younger years. And they were racing on multi-hulls, which always made sense to me--if multi-hulls were demonstrably the best technology 25 years ago when Dennis Conner was winning with them, why not use them today?...

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_I'm hooked. Can't wait for the LVC or the AC, and I will be watching the next ACWS events. I'm a newbie to the sport, but if you're interested in casual fans at least one is getting roped in. I hope whoever wins in '13 keeps this up for another sequence; ACWS races are a nice appetizer for the big event. _

There's a lot more dissecting the ACWS from a casual viewer perspective, and you can read it here.