The Greatest Sports Story of the Year (So far)

In case you missed the best sports story of the year; epic comeback from assured defeat, element of danger, speed, technology, courage… I’m guessing you probably did miss it because almost everyone in the country with the exception of a few folks who like sailing and some San Franciscan’s paid no attention to the  2013 America’s Cup races. And too bad, you missed it.

I have some limited history to the cup, and lot of exposure. I enjoyed sailing quite a bit back in the day growing up on Stockton’s Fake Lake Lincoln. There boats of choice were the Sunfish, Lazer and Hobiecat,  listed in order of prestige and speed. There was also the Snark. the first boat I learned to sail in. It was a 10 foot Styrofoam hulled skiff sort of thing with a triangle sail in green and white with a big logo for Kool cigarettes on it. My folk earned that boat after smoking 300 cartons of mentholated cigs back in 1973. Those were the days.

In 1992 Mrs S and I had a chance to go to San Diego to see the America’s Cup races. This was back in Dennis Conner’s hayday. The defending boat was America3 aka America Cubed, the challenger; Il Moro from Italy. It was quite a deal. The atmosphere around the docks was really cool, the two syndicates had their secured berths with armed security patrolling. The boats themselves were shielded by tarps when they weren’t out racing, and the place reeked of luxury brands. Yachting after all isn’t exactly the most proletarian of sports. The action on the water was great, although not particularly spectator friendly. Even from the water the view on the racecourse  was mostly watching small sails on the horizon going up and down the course.

Back then the boats were still racing yachts that looked like traditional sailboats, as opposed to the high tech catamarans flying around San Francisco bay the last few weeks.

The America’s Cup competition has an interesting history filled with stories of cheating, court appearances, rule bending and random racing. They don’t race on a set schedule for example, it’s based on challenges and the team that holds the cup gets to set the rules. I like the Dennis Conner story in 1988 when New Zealand made a surprise challenge for the cup. The result was a 2 race contest off San Diego. Dennis Conner found a loophole in the America’s Cup Deed Rules that didn’t specify the number of hulls a boat could have and thus surprised the Kiwi’s with the boat Stars and Stripes H3- the first catamaran to compete in the race. No single hull racing yacht has a chance against a catamaran, Conner won easily and everyone was back in court. I’ve estimated that the amount of time spent in court to time on the water in this competition is about 185:1. Rich on rich crime if you will.

But that doesn’t take away the cool factor when the boats on are the water duking it out. Lets be honest too, F1 racing isn’t exactly a cheap game.

The cup is won by syndicates from competing yacht clubs. The history starts in the 1840’s when the New York Yacht Club  had the distinction of winning a regatta against 15 boats from the Royal Yacht Squadron around the Isle of Wright. The trophy they won was brought back to New York and donated to the Deed of Gift of the America’s Cup in 1857 with the provision that it be held in trust for perpetuity as a challenge trophy to promote “friendly competition between nations”.

The New York Yacht Club successfully defended all challenges between 1870 and 1983, the longest winning streak in any sport. I have some memories of the 1977 Cup and the boat Courageous, which was skippered by media magnate and Fonda Hubs Ted Turner. I specifically remember watching him at the post race conference when he was so drunk he fell off the podium. Good times. Finally in 1983, after 20 years of trying, the Cup was won by the Perth Yacht Club and their boat Australia II with it’s controversial winged keel. With that victory the cup left the Untied States for the first time

The cup didn’t stay down under long. In 1987 the San Diego Yacht Club, represented by Dennis Conner went down to Australia and brought the cup back to the Unites States. Back then you could get yourself a Dennis Conner t-shirt that read “Not just taking the Cup, taking the whole damned island”.

The cup lived in San Diego until 1995 when the Kiwi boat Black Magic won the cup and took it south again. Interestingly enough in the Defenders challenges, the race to see who would defend the cup for the United States, featured a boat called Might Mary, which featured a female crew. Mrs S had the “We can do this” tee shirt with a stylized Rosie the Riveter logo featured on the boats hull.

Since 1995 the cup has been to New Zealand, Switzerland (they sailed in Barcelona given that Switzerland is landlocked) and now San Francisco Bay. I think the bay could be the best venue of all for watching races, the course is viewable from miles of city waterfront, and is a natural arena for sailing.

In case you missed it, which you probably did, there’s so many great stories here.

The Boats

Larry Ellison, Oracle’s eccentric multimillionaire founder is sponsoring the American team. Since the San Francisco Yacht Club are the defenders they get to pick to type of the boat. Larry picked a high tech formula one catamaran. These babies have foils that bring the entire 11,000 lbs of boat out of the water on two 6’ long wings at about 15-20 knots.  The boats lack traditional soft sales instead sporting 13 story high carbon-fiber wings that have a hinge in the middle. The gear men grinding on the boat are adjusting the angle of the wings to maximize speed. Between the lack of resistance in the water and the high tech wings these boats are able to go almost 3X the speed of the wind, which is crazy.

The Drama

I watched the first 6 races of this competition and really thought we had no chance. The Kiwis were kicking our ass at every race. It got so bad that after race 3, they do two races an afternoon, the Americans played their one “damage” card and which allowed them to skip a race and fix their boat. More like fix their egos, they’d just been beaten by the Kiwi boat by almost 1000 meters.

By the end of last week New Zealand had gone up 8-1. The finals are a best of 19 series of races. New Zealand only needed to win 2 races out of 10 to take the cup back down the Auckland. News reports were saying they were already making preparations for the cup and counting the millions of dollars the competition would bring to the city.

And then the comeback. The Americans changed up their tactics a bit, figured out how to conquer the upwind leg of the race, the part where they were getting their butts kicked every time and staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in sport history, winning 8 races and pushing the competition to a final winner take all race yesterday.

Which they won, big.

Congrats to Larry Ellison and the Oracle team, they took a lot of heat for the new boats, the venue, on and on, and we’re able to pull off one of the most exciting competitions in the history of the cup.

Unfortunately they weren’t able to pull off attracting fans. San Francisco was packed, but TV ratings were terrible. The last race wasn’t even listed in the schedules. News coverage was non-existent. ESPN had zero coverage.  In contrast the entire country of New Zealand was watching these races. Sad.

The other problem with this year’s competition was the cost. Larry Ellison is not exactly known for frugality when it comes to his hobbies. He wanted to create an F1 like race with sailboats, and on that score he succeeded. But there was fall out. The price of admission this year was huge, so huge that after the win Oracle’s Marketing head was heard at a press conference saying they’d have to really look at the spend for this competition going forward, vs benefits to the company. The high cost of the boats, the technology required in their design and building all added up and severely limited the number of syndicates who could participate in the challenge.  In 1992 there were 15 teams participating in the challengers competitions. This year there were four.

I would conjecture that there will be some serious discussion this year and next about ways to reduce the costs of this competition. They have to figure out how to attract more teams in participating, for both the defender series and the challengers cup. If I were to conjecture I’d guess we won’t see the AC72 Catamarans again.

My guess is we’ll see a toned down version of the cup races, but this isn’t a sport about the equipment as much as it is about the strategy and tactics, and the sailors. Personally book me a room in San Francisco for the next cup, can’t wait.


Filed under Life

4 responses to “The Greatest Sports Story of the Year (So far)

  1. It was my understanding that the final race was not televised. Period. I don’t care how bad the ratings were, it was criminal to air almost all the races and then duck out on the last one, which turned out to be history-making.

  2. Eddie

    Great blog!
    I’ve always been curious about The Cup but never sailed. I was totally bummed when the Cup was lost for the first time!. I did keep up w this one and got so excited about the greatest comeback of all time.

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