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AC36 Preview – Lessons learned, myths disputed, and, oh, that nationality thing*

*by the guy who screwed that up

[Andy Rose is a Californian (Newport Beach, Balboa YC) and long time friend of your Ed.'s who was tactician on AUSTRALIA I in the 1977 America’s Cup and was involved in three other AC campaigns. Andy was the first American to sail on a non-American boat in the modern era of the Cup that began with the 12s off Newport, RI in 1958. Having an American sail with a challenger in the 1977 Cup so alarmed the NYYC that they wrote a nationality rule for the 1980 Cup (known informally as the Rose Rule) that was rescinded by the Swiss team Alinghi and their yacht club Société Nautique de Genève after they won the Cup in 2003. –TFE]

NEWPORT BEACH, CA – In October of 2013, I wrote an article for another publication about the prospects for the next America’s Cup after Oracle’s victory in Valencia in 2010 with the trimaran nicknamed “Dogzilla.” I was pretty upbeat about the next America’s Cup. I’m not any more. But I thought it might be fun to update that article with some modified lessons that should be learned and a bit more “myth dispelling” about the current spectacle in Bermuda, aka the America’s Cup.

The nationality thing

I might as well start with the nationality thing. As I said in that 2013 article, “I had good reasons for what I did way back then in the mists of time, but I think the complete abandonment of the rule was a mistake.” At the time I suggested a rule with a sliding scale for nationality which took into account a country’s experience in large boat, America’s Cup type racing so that the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand, for example, would have to have all or virtually all nationals sailing on their boat while smaller, less experienced countries would have a lower percentage requirement. I thought that might be important in attracting challenges and especially challenges from countries that had never done so before.

I guess, given that the current America’s Cup boats only require a couple of people with traditional sailing skills, that is probably unnecessary. So, if no changes are made to the boats, I guess a pure nationality rule is in order but on the other hand, I won’t care about, or have much confidence in the future of the Cup anyway if it doesn’t change.

The irony of having more J-Class yachts in Bermuda than AC teams

Some years ago Oracle CEO Sir Russell Coutts, in attempting to justify the move to a sponsor- and television-oriented spectacle with catamarans, said that the America’s Cup was “dying” after Valencia in 2007, despite the fact that there had been eleven challengers, the final best-of-nine race series required seven races (Alinghi won 5-2 over Team NZ), and the final race was decided by one second. Not bad for a “dying” event!

I presume he meant that without his new model, new, very expensive boats would not be built to carry on the tradition of the Cup. I guess Russell didn’t major in irony in school or perhaps he didn’t see the seven J-Class yachts, some of them built in the last couple of years, that raced last week in Bermuda. How on earth did they do that without airline, car or watch logos on their sails!

So, first myth…you need sponsors for the Cup to survive. I doubt it. In its history, new Cup boats were funded by wealthy people or syndicates composed of them and at last check, we weren’t running out of rich people in this world. There is a role for sponsorship, but I believe to say it is necessary to “save” the Cup is just wrong. And, of course, this year we had only five challengers, at least one of which was evidently funded primarily by the defender and its major sponsor, Larry Ellison (see “rich people” above). So was the Cup really “dying” after 2007 or is it “dying” now?

The America’s Cup improves the sport?

Many of those who support the current iteration of the Cup seem to argue mainly that the America’s Cup has always been about technology and that new ideas “trickle down” to the sport in general so this is just a continuation of a long tradition. Not exactly sure how wing technology is going to trickle down but, fair enough, I think that there is an equally long and more important tradition of the America’s Cup and that is that it is a sailboat race. As such, it used to showcase the incredible diversity of skills among a crew necessary to win such a sailboat race, putting up and taking down huge sails, using grinders to actually get sails sheeted on, etc. In the search for a mass TV audience, the technology remains but the “sailing” part is, for the most part, missing.

I’ll give you an example. Back when the Cup was in monohulls, a young sailor with talent on the foredeck, a sail trimmer, a grinder, or even a young tactician, could literally aspire to some day sail in the America’s Cup. On my 50 foot monohull we have two bowmen, Patrick Leber and Tyler Wolk, both of whom are as good as any bowmen I’ve sailed with in my various America’s Cup or maxi boat ocean racing campaigns – that includes some of the best ever. If the current format continues, there is no role for Patrick or Tyler, nor any of the other young people that do the other crucial jobs aboard the boat in a race.

And, guess what, just like in the “old days”, I know sailors like Patrick and Tyler would jump at the chance to join an America’s Cup campaign if they were provided with room and board and a little “walking around” money as we were in the past. The Cup itself is, or at least was, the pinnacle of many of our sailing careers and definitely worth whatever “sacrifice” we had to make to get there. I had hoped that many of these incredible younger sailors would have had the same opportunities.

Sailing can attract a mass audience?

Even if it were true that somehow we can develop a format that will attract a wider audience on television – if this year is any guide, it isn’t happening – and if we have to “dumb down” the sport to look more like NASCAR to get it, what is the benefit? Instead, the sponsor/TV model seems to be designed mainly to make a few, and lately very few, sailors wealthy. And, carried to its logical conclusion, as someone has already commented, why don’t we get rid of the sailors and the grinders altogether and do it all by remote control? At least in 2013, we had incredible visuals on San Francisco Bay and the wind blew all the time. I love the island of Bermuda but visuals? Not so much.

Now the AC is a “real” sport with "real" athletes?

In re-reading my 2013 piece, I figured I can’t comment on this point any better now so I’ll quote myself – never underestimate a tactician’s ego! As I said then:

I cringed at a couple of the commentators statements to the effect that “now this is a real sport” as if only 72 foot [now 50 foot] catamarans sailing 20-minute races was “real” and things like, for example, the Volvo Round the World Race, the Olympics, the Sydney-Hobart, Bermuda or Fastnet Races, the World Match Race Tour, and frankly even those races in which we amateurs still sail offshore are some kind of a quaint hobby. Sailing is a real, difficult, sometimes dangerous and incredibly complex sport, and it seems to me that the America’s Cup of all things should highlight and honor that.

As Roger Vaughn wrote about [the 2013] Cup, “We are still calling it sailing, calling it the future. The speed and the technology is intriguing, even momentarily arresting. But is it sailboat racing?” Well, of course it is part of our diverse sport, but couldn’t we include a few more parts of the sport in the next Cup? While every once in a while a “tactic” broke out, for the most part, the races were drag races and the only sail changes were the rare deployment of a code zero on a furler [in 2017, not even those]. And the fact is that the early races weren’t really close, and neither, ultimately, were the later ones, the only difference was that one boat was faster at first, the other later.

Some would argue that the sailors now are much better or more fit. Ever seen America’s Cup winning bowman Jerry Kirby go up a mast or set a spinnaker when it’s blowing 30? And he is “ancient”!

A new AC dawn? No harm in hoping

I can’t give up on the Cup, it’s part of me. And, I’m essentially an optimistic person. So, where should it go from here? I suspect the only chance of any change is if New Zealand wins. What if they did something like this:

  • 65-70 foot planing, all-carbon monohulls based on a box rule. Had a boat like that been used in San Francisco, as I said in the 2013 article, “Match racing maxi-boats in the old days was pretty exciting, but a 5 minute match race pre-start among two modern boats in 25 knots of breeze would be breathtaking – both literally and figuratively – and both such boats planing within a boat length or two of each other at 20-25 knots of speed downwind with the spray flying wouldn’t be too bad a visual either.” Some who are watching this year’s event have pointed out that you don’t get much feeling of speed watching the cats on TV anyway. And, in light breeze, of course, you could still have close races.

  • A nationality rule requiring all or almost all of sailors on the boat to be from the country of that challenger or defender.

  • A two or three year cycle with no new boat or heavily modified old boat launched until one year before the start of the challenger trials for each Cup.

  • No more than two boats built during a cycle by any one challenger or defender candidate.

  • No “America’s Cup World Series”. On a two or three year schedule, there isn’t a lot of time but it also isn’t necessary. But if it is felt to be necessary, results would not affect the actual challenger trials in any way.

  • The defender cannot sail against the challengers. Other potential defenders are welcome, though, and if there is more than one, a defender selection series would be held to pick the defender.

I’ve been racing this weekend so I wasn't able to watch the Cup, and probably wouldn’t have done so anyway since the good commentators were relegated to the World Feed instead of NBC. But I was pleased to hear tonight that the Kiwis are on Match point. If the Kiwis do win, I will start hoping that someone in that great sailing country will make some decisions which will return the America’s Cup to its rightful place at the pinnacle of our complex, wonderful and exciting sport –sailboat racing, that is!

[Our thanks to Andy for the time and effort to pen this thoughtful piece. If any of our other Dear Readers have a similar inclination, please contact your Ed. –TFE]

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