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Kimball Livingston: The cart and the horsepower

Saturday, June 24, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – [Kimball Livingston is a longtime friend and an old hand who's sailed more than a bit and spent many a year sniffing under this tent or that tent at the America's Cup. He's voiced no regret at not attending AC35, though he's a wet towel when he remembers that this week's meeting of SINS went off without him. These are his first public words about the America's Cup since it left San Francisco. –TFE]

 

I once joined a chorus.

It was Oracle's chorus, excoriating the owner of Team Alinghi for proposing a format in which an America's Cup Defender would participate in the Challenger Trials. So I confess to a certain dissonance as I observe commentators in 2017 struggling to explain the one-point advantage that Oracle (briefly) carried into the 35th match for the America's Cup. And why the Kiwis are up only three points after winning four races. And . . .

Having, ages ago it seems, attended events at the Golden Gate Yacht Club – you may have heard of GGYC; they're the Sixth Trustee of the America's Cup – and having shared in the members' joy as they were assured, "We're going to win the America's Cup – FOR YOU!" I confess to a further dissonance in the here and now. Because only a yacht club can win or possess the America's Cup. (Read the Deed.) And I note that America's defense of the 35th match was moved to foreign waters without consulting the Sixth Trustee of the America's Cup. 

And if you, Dear Reader, just came in, I apologize. There's a lot of history here, and I can't cover all of it. 

Ten years ago we were in Spain, and one Sir Russell Coutts was promoting his plan for a professional catamaran circuit, and the money just wasn't coming, but I agreed with the man then and now that our sport deserves a viable pro circuit. Then Coutts, an Olympic medalist and winner of the America's Cup for New Zealand in 1995 and 2000, and winner for, uh, Switzerland in 2003, got hired by Larry Ellison to be the CEO of Oracle Racing. Coming off two losing campaigns, Ellison was looking for a winner. 


As soon as Coutts settled in, he began to hammer and tong the America's Cup into a new shape to become his international circuit, whether it fit or not. I wrote and spoke supportive words in a sort of forced optimism because, through too many of the decades preceding, the design of Cup boats had not represented the leading edge of naval architecture. Instead, the 12 Meters and all too soon the ACC designs that followed represented only the state of the art of tweaking and re-tweaking yesterday's ideas. Shouldn't our leading event be the leading edge?

Where the Cup stands today is much more complicated than saying this has gone for the good or gone for the bad. Coutts moved the Cup to high performance, and in 2013 the Kiwis took foiling from an obscure niche to mainstream. You can't say that's not a jaw-dropping turn of events.

I can tell from what's coming out of Hamilton that there is plenty of energy and excitement inside the bubble. The boats, and the skills of the people handling them, are very 21st century. One thumb up. And as I write, the drama behind the curtain is the question of whether Oracle, after losing four straight races so far in light air – with slightly more breeze in the forecast – can rejigger to replicate the comeback of 2013. 

Meanwhile, the stern measure of the Coutts/Ellison gamble is whether the event succeeds as sports-on-television and advances toward a time when the owner of a successful team can expect a return on investment. That's where they said they were headed. From that point of view, only the numbers matter. 

I don't know the numbers. But I'm guessing, as to a big success for everybody's pocketbooks, not exactly. 

I skipped watching the Vuitton races and the inevitable drama of eliminations. I get it that the youth event was a blast. But watching the first two days of racing for the America's Cup did not make me tingle all over. The boats and crews did not present a visual spectacle that I would bother to watch if the future of the America's Cup were not at stake. And I watched remotely, on television, which is the way the proposed big audience is supposed to engage. People around are surprised that I'm not in Bermuda. I'm not surprised. I wept with joy when the Cup came to San Francisco Bay. When it left, I chose to hold my tongue. I did a pretty good job of that, but here we are. 

Mr. Ellison at one time waxed eloquent on how moving it was to hear crowds chanting USA, USA and to realize that, yes, he was sailing for America in the America's Cup. Tepid is perhaps the best word to describe American enthusiasm for our Defender in 2017.

The win-win would be for the Kiwis to take the Cup and resurrect its gutted traditions (perhaps in foiling catamarans, but that would be up to the next Challenger of Record and the next Defender) and for Coutts' circuit to move on and thrive. The question then would be, could the circuit survive without its ultimate talisman, the America's Cup? And which is the cart? And which is the horse? 

Graphic courtesy of SAILING ILLUSTRATED's crack design department, i.e., Meg Ehman.

 

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