AC35 Match: The latest scoop, and poop, from Bermuda – and the AC36 rumor mill
HAMILTON, BER – OTUSA was back out on the water today, and the changes they have so far made are minor and more by way of fine-tuning and trying different already-available options, not majors. As one OTUSA insider told SI, “If we knew what to change we would.” Rumors of a an imminent change of skipper or other personnel, a la the AC34 swap out of John Kostecki for Ben Ainslie, are just that, unfounded rumors. To make such changes at this late stage would almost certainly be suicide. Moreover, the rumor that they are installing pedaling stations in place of their coffee grinders is simply choc full o’ nuts. Even if they could switch to pedaling, who in the team has the leg power to make it worthwhile? Are you going to put the grinders, who have been training for three years to have huge upper body strength – but not leg power – on pedals? I don’t think so. Fine-tuning of the foils and wing and their control systems? Sure. Set someone else up in the crew at this late stage to trim the foils instead of skipper Jimmy Spithill (as cyclor Blair Tuke does for the Kiwis)? Not bloody likely.
ETNZ will be back out on the water tomorrow, or so we hear. They are also tweaking, not making major changes. There have been rumors of a late-breaking measurement protest from OTUSA against ETNZ, but your Ed. has not been able to confirm that. If any of that is afoot you wouldn’t know it except via leaks from insiders due to this Cup’s secrecy rules and the ACEA CEO's paranoia about adverse proceedings or publicity.
BOTH TEAMS have learned a fair bit about themselves and each other from racing last weekend, and it is fair to say both have more in the tank – that’s not just PR talk from Pete Burling and Jimmy Spithill. Expect some refinements in their respective kit, and improved handling and performance by each team. Both are still on a steep part of the foiling-cat learning curve, but with little time left to make huge leaps, especially in a boat that is largely one-design.
WEATHER FORECAST for the coming weekend is remarkably similar to last weekend – light but raceable. This can only benefit ETNZ. On the weekend there will be two big high-pressure systems parked either side of Bermuda. One of your Ed.'s best friends is not only a racing sailor of repute, but also a noted offshore fisherman who has extensive experience with Bermuda's waters and weather. He opined today that this weekend looks perfect for Marlin fishing.
SPITHILL’S FAMOUS AGGRESSION will return this weekend. That will be the biggest apparent change from last weekend. We are reliably informed that Jimmy will come out with guns a’ blazin’ in the pre-start, and will be much more aggressive throughout the race if he can stay ahead of or with the Kiwis. Expect to see more protests, close calls, collisions even. God forbid anyone is hurt, or either of the boats is seriously compromised. But mark my words, there will be fireworks. You can bet, too, that the teams and jury are boning up on the redress rules, as they could play a significant role in the outcome of this regatta.
ETNZ HOSPITALITY is essentially zero. Unlike SF when they had a full sponsor fulfillment program, there is next to none in BDA. The team doesn’t even hang out at the Base after racing. Peter Burling and Blair Tuke convinced team leadership to take a page out of their Olympic playbook – put the boat away and go back to team housing for a quiet, private debrief in a relaxed setting without any external influences, glad-handers or other distractions.
PETE BURLING's onshore comportment has impressed the hell out of everyone connected with ETNZ, especially the veterans, and not just how calmly he handles the press conferences. Some rank his interpersonal skills and engineering inquisitiveness and understanding as being ahead of Russell Coutts at his peak. Pete is said to know the names of everyone connected with the team, as well as their spouses and even kids. At meals he sits with the engineers, not just the other sailors (or gets the sailors to join him), and has a constant back-and-forth with the engineers on how things really work, and what ifs.
SPEAKING OF RUSSELL, he is telling friends privately that this is probably his last Cup. Nobody believes him. One interesting development was his extending an olive branch to his old boss, and nemesis, Ernesto Bertarelli. Ernie had a quiet reunion of ex-Team Alinghi personnel in BDA aboard his luxurious yacht VAVA II, which has been conspicuous among the rather few (fewer than in SF) super yachts present. VAVA has such a strong wifi signal that the media can see it on their laptops at the Media Center, and more than one has remarked about what fun it would be to hack into it.
ERNESTO BERTARELLI would like to be the Kiwi’s Challenger of Record if they win, but he has been beaten to that punch by Patrizio Bertelli, CEO of Prada who famously quit this Cup cycle in disgust when Coutts convinced a majority of the teams (except ETNZ and Prada) to downsize from the originally-agreed (and partially designed, at least in the case of ETNZ and Prada) AC62 cats to the smaller, less expensive AC50s. Bertelli has contributed money, equipment and personnel (notably Max Sirena) to the Kiwi’s campaign. Should ETNZ prevail, Bertelli and Prada will be their COR-partner.
ACEA'S DOCK-OUT SHOWS, which were popular and well-attended by fans of both teams in San Francisco, have been scrubbed by ACEA for the rest of AC35 due to the obvious imbalance of fan support for the two teams. ETNZ were getting a strong turn-out of rabid, flag-waving fans (including many locals) for the race-day dock-out shows, while the number of OTUSA supporters was embarrassingly small. That also saves money for ACEA and ACBDA (the local host committee).
CUTTING EVENT COSTS to the bone is the mantra as ACEA’s budget is once again under considerable pressure, especially given the rumored multi-million dollar payout to the Kiwis following the decision of the Arbitration Panel that went against ACEA, and the likely TV make-goods (or at least no up side for ACEA) due to the low ratings. Moreover, the turnout of visitors to Bermuda has lagged even the most pessimistic projections. Note there is no cruise ship as had been the plan to host an overflow of hotel guests, and the local unions are complaining that their hotel workers are being laid off due to lower than 100% occupancy, even at the ACEA headquarters Hamilton Princess. AC merchandise has been on sale, marked down 30% or more before the Match started – rare for a “major" sporting event. Even Louis Vuitton has cut back. Last Friday's traditional pre-regatta gala, if you could call it that, was much smaller and tamer than LV affairs for past Cups. Few media were invited, and even the invitations to teams were severely limited. ETNZ was barely represented, and there have been conflicting reports as to whether the Kiwis boycotted the event due to it being on the eve of Race Day 1.
CUP VISITORS praise the beauty of Bermuda and the kind and accommodating locals, but many complain that the event lacks a central, natural gathering area like San Francisco’s Marina District, the Viaduct in Auckland, the Esplanade in Freo, and Bannister's Wharf in Newport. To be fair this was also a complaint about San Diego and Valencia, and justifiably so. But the biggest complaint is the cost to eat, drink and be merry in BDA (to say nothing of the high cost of accommodation and getting around) – widely reported to be more expensive than San Francisco.
If GGYC/OTUSA win, AC36 will be in 2019 in Chicago, not Bermuda. AC50 cats again. The COR will be the Kungliga Svenska Segel Sällskape / Artemis Racing if Torbjorn Tornqvist continues; if not, the Royal Yacht Squadron / Land Rover BAR. You can expect more pre-regattas around the world leading to another short (by historical measures) event in the "Windy City," which, of course, is not windy at all (except in the winter – indeed, Chicago’s “windy city” nickname comes from the reputation of its politicians, not Lake Michigan’s normally gentle summer breezes). All that could change if Russell really does retire, or gets retired by Larry Ellison in favor of someone else to run the next event.
IF RNZYS/ETNZ win, AC36 will be in Auckland in 2021 or as late as 2022 – same as the five-year gap after the Kiwis won in 1995. The venue will not be in the UAE as some have speculated. Indeed, it is not even clear that, given the world’s present political situation and with all the complications presented by the Middle East, that Emirates Airline will be back as the Kiwis' title partner. One big change from 2000/03 – racing in AKL will be “inside” just off the City Front to accommodate shoreside viewing, not out in the Hauraki Gulf. There will be a big think and much hand-wringing over multi v. mono. The old guard and money, including Patrizio Bertelli (dba their COR through one of his Italian yacht clubs), want to revert to monos. The new guard, especially the sailors, want to stay in multis. RNZYS/ETNZ will do a marketing/TV study, consult prospective teams, then make a decision with their COR. The Kiwis will re-instate a strong nationality rule – 80% of the crew will need to be citizens of the team’s country – but still leave room in their roster for Aussie Glenn Ashby.
IF THE KIWIS WIN, John Bertrand (AUS, of AUSTRALIA II fame) will be back in the Cup with an Aussie team, thanks in part to the Kiwis’ strong nationality rule. It will cause Torbjorn Tornqvist to re-think his Artemis Racing program, as such a rule will make it difficult to challenge from Sweden (unless the event moves back to monohulls). Land Rover BAR will be happy with such a rule; it will strengthen Sir Ben Ainslie's hand with British sponsors and fans. Expect Ernesto Bertarelli to jump back into the AC fray as well, but with a Swiss Challenge? Nothing stops him from launching a challenge from another country, e.g., France or Spain. Did you know that Ernesto has recently been elected to membership in the New York Yacht Club? Hmmm.... If the Kiwis come up with a formula that truly makes campaigns more affordable than they are now, there could be another AC Renaissance like we saw after AUSTRALIA II won the Cup from NYYC in 1983. Recall that for 1987 in Freo there were fully 17 teams – four defenders and thirteen challengers, six of which were from the USA. The size of the event made Dennis Conner's epic 1987 comeback that much more popular with fans all over the world, not just in the USA. The large number of teams, and the international flavor they imparted to Perth – often called the most-remote capital city in the world – is a prime reason why many call 1987 the best Cup in the modern era.
WHAT WILL LARRY DO IF THE KIWIS WIN? Who knows, and likely he doesn’t either. Sure, after five campaigns he might retire from the Cup, but do you think he wants to go out as a loser? Two wins (2010 and 2013) and three losses (2003, 2007, 2017)? Don’t count him out. He lives to compete. Larry could mount another challenge from the USA, or a challenge from some other country – perhaps a real ORACLE TEAM JAPAN for AC36? Or even offer to sponsor a defense candidate for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Don’t laugh. In the past your Ed. has been privy to discussions with him that were more far-fetched than that!
With all the other teams shuttered except ETNZ, the Kiwis spending another day resting and ramping up on shore, and precious few spectator boats (except for a Kiwi spy boat) around, OTUSA cut a lonely path across Bermuda's Great Sound today. ETNZ is expected to sail tomorrow, as is OTUSA.