Saturday, 28 September 2013

Those Magnificent Men in their Foiling Machines!

Skippers thoughts on Americas Cup….sob!

Three years ago, Lord Larry of Lollyland sat down with Sir Russell and asked the question … “We’ve won the Cup, how can we keep it”?  “Simple!” said Sir Russell, “we create a class of yacht that is so expensive to build and race that no one can afford to compete against us!!”  “ Brilliant!!” said Lord Larry, “I like it, you’re hired !!!”   Shortly thereafter Sir Russell announced to the sailing world that Oracle would drag the Americas Cup kicking and screaming from the stone age into the facebook age with what we now know as the AC72 class of catamaran.  What amazing foiling, flying machines they are.

Initially the Chinese, Koreans and a couple of Sheiks said they would be there, as well as a few of the historically staunch AC syndicates from Europe and of course Team New Zealand.  Most fell by the wayside once they realized the true cost and commitment needed to be remotely competitive.  The plan was going well at that stage until the Italians and New Zealanders pooled their design and research resources, split the cost and both were able to front up.  Neither one would have been there without the other which would have a left a very gallant but very average Swedish campaign as Oracle’s only opposition.  This Americas Cup was very close to being a write off.  TNZ emerged as the only class act amongst them and the challenger series was a non event with boats regularly sailing the course with no opposition.  It was a total farce but provided TNZ with a good shakedown for what was to come.

The Americas Cup showdown was on as Team New Zealand stepped up to challenge the mighty resources and talent of Oracle Team USA and amazingly after winning the first couple of races, it was clear that TNZ had arrived in San Francisco with a superior, faster all round package. We just kept winning!!  We outclassed them!!

Lord Larry was not happy… he gathered his dream team of designers and sailors and said ”What have you lot been doing for the past two years?  How come we have arrived on the start line to defend the Americas Cup and we are so underdone?  They are slicker and faster at every tack and gybe - I pay you the big bucks because you are the best!!  What’s gone wrong?”

Meanwhile Oracle kept losing, and after yet another defeat, they played the postponement card to avoid having to race the second race of the day and to buy time.  Now this postponement card was agreed prior to the regatta by all teams in case of gear failure on these fragile speed machines.  No one thought for a moment that it would be used because a team just didn’t want to race and probably get whipped again.  Its a bit like being 30-nil down at half time and telling the ref you won’t be coming out for the second half cos you don’t want to loose 60-nil  (I’m talking rugby here).  Some say it was a smart move and they are probably right but I think it was spineless!!  The irony is that a few days later Jimmy Spithill realized they may now have a slight edge in the higher wind speeds, and he as good as accused TNZ of short changing the viewing public by not agreeing to race above the official wind limits.  Yeah right Jimmy!!         

It has become clear now exactly why Jimmy played the postponement card which preceded a lay day and then, as luck would have it, a race day postponed because of too much wind.  Up to this point it was clear that Oracle were not tacking the boat upwind very well but in addition  the crew were having serious problems managing the foiling stability of the boat through the down wind gybes and were losing races because of it.  They had capsized the boat whilst out training in February and as a result were months behind TNZ who had pioneered the foiling technology a year earlier and spent the last winter down under being flogged by the weather on a daily basis out on the water testing and finally perfecting their ability to raise a catamaran out of the water on a set of foils and then somehow remain in control as the acceleration kicks in and you and the boat disappear over the horizon.  From then on everyone including Oracle were playing catch up and it was obvious in the first week of the Americas Cup that Oracle had failed in that respect.  However, in the words of Jimmy Spithill, this was far from over. His team mobilized their enormous resources and within a few days had bolted on some serious technical kit to drive the foil trim automatically, way faster than a human can.  It is the same kit used on swept wing aircraft to retain constant stability.  Very clever stuff,  bordering on illegal and TNZ protested its use but it was deemed to be a grey area in the class rules and the protest was thrown out.  When racing resumed, Oracle were much faster and as their talented sailors mastered the new technology they just got quicker and quicker eventually foiling upwind at speeds in excess of 30 knots.  The writing was on the wall.   Team New Zealand still with a big points lead needed to close out this regatta and do it fast.    

And so we arrived at the day that TNZ won the Cup.  The day dawned with light winds.  There would be no foiling today.  For the first time we would see the big Code Zero downwind sails.  Here we were on match point, one more race win and the Cup was on a plane to Aotearoa.  We prayed and cheered as TNZ closed the finish line doing 20 knots in 10 knots of wind, over a kilometre ahead of Oracle.  Inexplicably once again Oracle were exposed as being woefully second best in manoeuvring under this different sail configuration!  It was too late to add more gizmos.  Nothing could stop TNZ now.

Then suddenly the phone rang on the TNZ boat ~ “yes … this is TNZ! … who?  what ?  Dean or Ray? ….. well they’re a bit busy at the moment, in fact….  I don’t mean to be rude, but we’re all a bit busy right now!  Can I get one of them to call you back after we’ve won the Americas Cup … it’ll just be a couple of minutes!….. Who is this again??  Oh … Race committee!! gosh … yes … I see  ... you want us to stop because you have to go to an ad break?  Well ~ I’ll tell them but they won’t be very happy ... how long do you want us to stop for?  I mean these boats cover a kilometre quite fast so we can’t  … what?  Oh I see! ~ crikey!! ~ bugger!!  Look I’ll put Ray on straight away!!”

The race was abandoned because TNZ were not going to finish inside a 40 minute time limit.  It was the gut wrenching turning point.  We were stunned, utterly speechless as we stared at the screen and watched Deano slow the boat and the boys roll up the sails just a few hundred metres from the finish line.  Absolutely bloody heart breaking.  I think we all knew deep down that from then on this was only going to end one way and we braced ourselves for the mother of all sporting comebacks. We all know that time limits in yacht racing are there to terminate races when the yachts are parked up for hours in no wind and glassy seas.  But in this facebook age where it is deemed that 40 minutes is the maximum attention span of the modern humanoid, even if one is barrelling toward the finish line at 20 knots with just 400 metres to go, tough!   that’s it I’m afraid your time is up.     

There was something else that influenced all this as well.  One year ago the maximum and minimum wind speeds within which the teams would race was agreed.  Minimum 5 knots, maximum 33 knots.  So TNZ built a boat to race within a 28 knot range.  It had to be a good all rounder.  A boat that could bat and bowl a bit so to speak.  A few weeks before the regatta and following the tragic Artemis accident the maximum wind speed was reduced to around 20/22  knots depending on tide etc.  The 40 minute time limit had also been long agreed, but that fateful race proved that in wind speeds of less than 10 knots, it was marginal as to whether the boats would complete the course in time.  So the race committee would no longer start races unless the wind speed was close to 10 knots.  Instantly that decision negated TNZ’s  last trump card.  There would be no more racing with Code Zero sails!!  So effectively the boats ended up needing to be optimized to race between the narrow band of 10 to 20 knots.  Nice to have known that a year ago.  Of course it is the same for both teams but it was clear that Oracle had the firepower, talent and budget to tweak their boat, more so than TNZ and once it was clear that all the remaining races would be sailed in a wind speed of 10 knots or more which is effectively foiling territory for these boats, it was going to be very hard for TNZ to pinch this last win. 

And so the rest is history.  Team New Zealand never won another race.  It was a slow agonising death as Oracle won 8 races in a row over a one week period.  It is the most bitter sporting pill I’ve ever had to swallow, and by golly there’s been a few.  Even surpassing the day I was goalkeeper for the under 7s in the cub scouts and we lost 21 – nil.  I left the field in tears.  Oddly, they made me man of the match - I was thrilled.  We had a very dodgy defence and none of it was my fault they said.  I was a grown man before I reflected upon that day and realized that they had done that to avoid my being mentally scarred for life

So Sir Russell, this brilliant Cup campaigner once again and for the third time broke the heart of his homeland.  But he did indeed drag the Americas Cup into the facebook age and full credit to Team Oracle USA.  Great recovery!!  What an amazing event.  It became way more than just a yacht race.  There were people next to me who knew nothing about yacht racing but were captivated by the spectacle of these extraordinary foiling machines piloted by their swashbuckling top gun crews.

Its hard to know how anyone can wrestle the Cup off these guys.  They are a driven outfit, bankrolled by the worlds 5th richest man who is passionate about retaining the Americas Cup.  Even if you manage to steal the march on them they have the ability to throw untold talent and resources at the problem and turn the whole thing on its head.  There is one thing though.  The new facebook yachting rules played into Oracle’s hands insofar as the time and wind limit delays extended the regatta out to 17 days.  It seems they have the extraordinary capability to analyse any pesky challenger who does things better than them and modify their package within a matter of days.  In hindsight agreeing to all these limits was TNZs undoing.  At the time it probably didn’t seem such a big deal , after all, its the same rules for everyone, but maybe its something to consider next time.                              

I feel gutted for Grant, Dean and the boys.  They threw everything at Oracle in those last few races.  What a roller coaster ride they gave us.  Little ole New Zealand went to San Francisco and blitzed the Oracle Dream Team.  We had the Cup won before they knew what hit them.  What joy, drama and agony they gave us.  It was unforgettable.  Bloody well done boys!

Sleep easy in the knowledge that you had done enough!!

1 comment:

Bo & Vivi, SY Lorna said...

Great reading and great info about how Oracle defended the Cup. Again, money ruins the sport. Hopefully this is the end of the A Cup. Sailing deserves better.