Thursday, September 26, 2013

We Have A Winner (Part 2)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013
ETNZ - 8

Oracle Team USA (OTUSA) has won the 34th America’s Cup in what will be touted as the greatest comeback in international sports.  They were on the scoreboard with only one point when Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) reached match point with their score at 8 points.  OTUSA then won eight straight races to win the Cup which was such an amazing comeback it was hard to believe.

Our media boat managed to make it back to the dock to drop us off.  The temporary pier that had been installed for the event was moving in waves in the churning water created by the massive flotilla that had formed after the race.  I admit that jumping from the media boat to the dock was a bit precarious but it had to be done.  This was the fastest route to the awards ceremony location and the clock was ticking.  As photographers we wanted and needed to be in position before the prize giving ceremony started.

While we had been out on the water chasing the AC72’s, the masses on land had gathered at the end of Piers 27 & 29 in the America’s Cup Park.  It was a sea of people.  Fortunately, as we came up the gangway from the media boat we were greeted by members of the Media Center team who escorted us through the crowd to a gated area designated specifically for the press.  We were corralled between the presentation stage and the throng of people.  I stripped off my foul weather gear and tucked it into my sailing bag.  A few of my friends were right along the barrier holding back the public so I planted my bag on the media side of the fence just in front of them as I figured this was the safest place for it.  My friends were pinned against that gate and wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon, even if they wanted to.  Christophe (who had been on my media boat) and I positioned ourselves pretty much dead center.  We were told we had to stay low so we didn’t block anyone’s view behind us, especially the view of my bag-guarding friends.

A number of what I’ll call the “Regular” photographers gathered around the spot that Christophe and I had claimed.  These “Regulars,” many of them the best in the field of sailing photography, were the ones I had met over the course of this journey.  At each venue whether it was Dubai, Cascais, Naples or Newport, the media was mostly made up of locals, but there were a handful that seemed to travel with the event.  Some were team photographers.  Some worked for specific sponsors.  These were the Regulars.  We all knew each other and over the course of the series we had become a sort of family.  We all looked out for each other.  

I had no idea how long we had been there but I did recall that we had been told that the awards ceremony and prize giving would be one hour after the race finished.  That hour had surely passed, possibly before we had even made it off the water.  But the teams had still been on their boats at that point and they couldn’t have the awards without the teams.  At least one additional hour had passed since we entered the corral and we were still waiting.  And more journalist kept arriving and kept trying to crowd into our ever shrinking area.

And we waited and waited and waited.  

It was quite warm that afternoon and it was getting warmer.  There were a lot of people gathered together very tightly.  All the body heat from the thousands of people at the end of the pier was adding to the generation of heat.  Tempers as well as the temperature were on the rise.  

More media representatives were arriving in a rather steady flow.  I realized that many of them were people I had never seen before, not even during this event.  Who were all these people with media badges?  Several of them tried to take the space in front of the Regulars.  When these new, random, unknown media representatives tried to encroach on this territory, none of the Regulars were allowing it to happen.  

As always, our Media Center team was there.  At this moment their job was to keep the peace.  The Regulars who had gathered at the mid-point in front of the stage had been working with and traveling with this Media Center team at venues around the world.  As the new press people arrived and tried to position themselves in front of the Regulars, the Media Center team saw what was happening.  A couple of them suddenly walked over with a big role of duct tape and started laying it out on the concrete creating a line that NO ONE was to cross.  And no one would DARE to disobey the Media Center team. Once that tape had been laid down, no one else even thought about trying to take the only remaining open space in the media corral which was right in front of the Regulars.  The coordinators were doing all they could, while still being fair to everyone, to give us the best opportunities available and maintain the peace.  I had, and continue to have, a lot of respect for that Media Center team.  They had a tough job and always handled it so very well.

And still we waited and waited and waited.  We can’t leave.  We can’t even really move.  Every now and then one of us would stand just to stretch our legs which did result in crossing the duct tape line.  This  inevitably caused groans and complaints from those trapped behind us and those who had wanted that very spot in front of the duct taped line.  But the Regulars were quick to point out and hold the spot from which one of their own had stood, giving the one standing a few more brief moments in an upright position.  Mob mentality was setting in.  Temperatures were still on the rise.

Then it was time.  California’s Lieutenant Governor and former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom headed up on stage followed by current San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Charlotte Schultz, Chief of Protocol for the State of California as well as for the City and County of San Francisco (also the wife of George Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State).  Newsom and Mayor Lee said a few words.  Then ETNZ headed through the sea of people to the stage.  The cheers from the crowd were deafening.  Skipper Dean Barker headed to center stage to give his speech and the whole pier fell silent while he spoke.  When he paused, you could have heard a pin drop.  He was so gracious.  He was complementary to OTUSA and overwhelmingly supportive of his own team.  I have tears in my eyes as he delivers his words and I find it hard to take photos while he is speaking.  It feels like such a private moment in such a public place.  As he finishes I catch myself applauding ETNZ instead of photographing them.
Then they left the stage.  They were gone.  

A tall trophy stand is brought out to center stage.  A large black banner that had hung along the front of the stage (which I thought had been placed there as a divider between the press and the teams to keep us separated) is removed.  Behind the black plastic, a sign is revealed which reads “2013 America’s Cup Winner”.  I wonder why it says 2013 and not 34th since this is the 34th edition of the race which, on average, takes place every three to five years.  But there is no time to question such things.

The dignitaries are still on stage and they are first joined by the Auld Mug herself, perched atop the trophy stand.  The announcement is made for OTUSA and they make their way through the screaming and cheering masses to the stage.  When the entire team is on stage, skipper Jimmy Spithill moves to the center to give his speech.  He is standing about 15 feet in front of me and is using the microphone  just as Barker had done, but the acclaim from the crowd is so loud that I cannot hear or make out a word he is saying.

When Spithill finishes, he is presented with the Auld Mug.  What an incredible moment!  It is absolute pandemonium.  Everyone is cheering.  Various team members are being handed the trophy and each of them is holding it over their head which brings a new round of praise and applause from the fans as they witness each of their heroes having their moment.  

The event organizers are trying to have the Napa Valley Sparkling Wine (aka Champagne) moment but the master of ceremonies is having difficulty regaining control of the bedlam taking place on the stage.  There is no way to pause the passing and lifting and revelry with the trophy.  The bottles of bubbly appear and Spithill, always towing the corporate line, takes a bottle, pops the cork and sprays it everywhere, including onto the trapped media crouching at his feet.  Team members are pouring whatever they can find from the now open champagne bottles and their re-hydrations sports drinks into the challis of the Auld Mug and taking a sip.  Shore crew, friends and family are rushing onto the stage to join in the fun.  It is sheer mayhem.  Every now and then the Auld Mug would pop up above the mass of people on the stage.  The prize giving ceremony at this point was out of control and I realize that the only photo opportunities left are for those in the middle of the mosh pit that has developed on the stage.  It seemed as though several of the Regulars had the same realization as me at the same time as together we abandoned the spots we had fought so hard to protect.
I work my way through the crowd to the media center which, fortunately, wasn’t too far away.  Finally I had a few moments to sit down in a relatively comfortable chair.  I try to digest everything that had happened thus far in the day.  But my break was not very long lived.

Press conferences were held as was the usual case after racing.  Today there would be two with one for each team.  First up was the press conference for ETNZ.   The team was represented by billionaire backer Matteo De Nora, grinder (and Managing Director) Grant Dalton, skipper Dean Barker and tactician Ray Davies.  There weren’t any major revelations made during the press conference but I was struck when the media grilled them a bit about the loss and they simply replied that it was all still too raw for them right now.  As the four team members stood to leave, the entire media center stood with them and applauded.  It was a remarkable and heartbreaking moment.  Again, they were gone.

There was a brief break and we were shown a video summary of the event while name plates were swapped out and the trophy arrived.  Then OTUSA took the seats where ETNZ had just been for their press conference.  Tactician Sir Ben Ainslie, team owner Larry Ellison, skipper Jimmy Spithill and strategist Tom Slingsby were there to represent their team.  The theme of this press conference seemed to be to never give up.  OTUSA had just made one of the greatest comebacks in international sports because they never gave up.  The mood was light hearted and the team members were even poking fun at each other during the press conference.  When Ellison was asked if the team would receive winning bonuses, Ellison remarked while looking at his team “You guys get paid?”  Spithill then joked that he would be happy to accept Ellison’s new Hawaiian island of Lanai as his winning bonus.  The press conference ended with the obligatory photo op with the trophy.  As photographers swarmed to the front, I jumped up on a chair just to watch what was going on.

As I leave the press conference area there is a table full of glasses filled with bubbly.  There is bubbly everywhere.  I sneak out of the media center and head over to the Sports Bar next door where I find my friends who had been guarding my sailing gear during the prize giving.  Several team members from OTUSA were at the Sport’s Bar as well.  The ETNZ crew and fans seemed to have all disappeared or faded away. 

At 6:00 pm the America’s Cup Park would close to the public.  This was in about 45 minutes.  I knew the real parties would then begin and I had a pass.  I packed up my things and stowed away my gear in my media center locker.  My work was done and now it was time for me to celebrate.

My journey from the 33rd America’s Cup to the 34th was coming to end.  And as I end this tale I will make a final movie reference - to the movie “The Hangover” - the original or first one.  Many of the memories from the remainder of the night were revealed the next day by way of my iPhone, which is where they will remain.  It was, as I am sure you can imagine, an incredible night.  I will share one image from that night.  We were on the roof deck of the Innovation Lounge which was the VIP hospitality venue for OTUSA during the event and the location of the celebrations that night.  From the upper deck there were amazing views of the San Francisco Bay, past Alcatraz to the Golden Gate Bridge.  The sun was setting and the sky was providing us with a tremendous array of colors.  The lighting was incredible.  It was at that moment when one of the team members spotted me and called me over.  “Are you ready” he asked me?  There was one priceless opportunity I had missed three years ago in Valencia when the Cup was won.  There was no chance at all I was going to pass it up again.  It was as if my whole journey culminated in that moment, with the sun setting behind the Golden Gate Bridge and the brilliant sky.   Yes - I was ready.  I tipped my head back looking to that magnificent sky while he lifted the Cup.  The silver spout ever so gently touched my lip and then I felt that amazing golden liquid on my tongue.  Of all the Champagne I have ever consumed, none has tasted as sweet as that which was poured directly from the Auld Mug.

We Have A Winner (Part 1)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013
ETNZ - 8

It is hard to believe that this journey to the 34th America’s Cup that began three years ago, culminating in this summer of racing, as all come down to this one race.  Winner takes all.  Winner gets the Cup.  I don’t think anyone, even the overly confident ORACLE Team USA (OTUSA) Skipper Jimmy Spithill, could have predicted this when OTUSA became the defender of the Auld Mug.  No matter who won today, I knew I had had an incredible experience and even with all the ups and down since February 14, 2010 until September 25, 2013 I wouldn’t trade a single moment of my journey from the 33rd America’s Cup to the 34th.

This morning I did something a little different.  I had received an invitation to the friends and family dock out for the home team - OTUSA.  This was one event I had missed during the 33rd America’s Cup back in Valencia in February, 2010 and I was thrilled to now have the opportunity to attend especially on this pivotal day.  Bright and early I headed down to Pier 80 where OTUSA has their base.  I drove past AT&T Park, through the Dog Patch neighborhood and into a very industrial area in a south east corner of San Francisco where Pier 80 was located.  The OTUSA base was surrounded by a huge fence topped with barbed wire.  A security guard buzzed me in and I drove my vespa along some old train tracks that led to the far end of the huge pier.  This was OTUSA’s home base and visitors were not allowed inside the shed where all the secrets were revealed and the boat building magic happened.

It was a little before 9:00 am and there were already about 60 people in the friends and family tent that had been set up on the back side of the pier where the boat docked out and more people were arriving in a steady flow.  Wives were dressed in red, white & blue leggings; kids had OTUSA and American flag temporary tattoos on their faces and hands; parents held signs of support; and everyone seemed calm as if this was just another race day.  It was a welcoming and friendly environment with coffee and pastries being served in the tent.

As the sailors started to exit the shed in their full sailing gear they would stop into the tent to meet up with their friends and family and together they would wander over to the dock.  The sailors headed down the gangway to the boat while everyone else joined the growing mass of people at the top of the dock.  The sun was perfectly positioned behind the 13-story-tall wing creating an amazing reflection on the boat and sailors.

By 9:30 am, the crew is all on board and several of the wives are on the lower dock waving and cheering while AC/DC blasts through the speakers.  I have to leave before the boat actually docks out as I want to make it back to the media center for the last media briefing.  I headed out to the sounds of music, singing and cheers, and the warmth I felt wasn’t only from that bright morning sun.  As I raced across town on my vespa, I passed by the Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) base which was at piers 30-32.  Their boat, named Aotearoa, had already left her mooring and I wondered if the mood and atmosphere there had been as warm and calm as it had been at the OTUSA base.

I am a few minutes late for the last morning briefing of the 34th America’s Cup.  The mood in the media center feels positive and jovial, but there is also a sense of anticipation in the room.  We all know that today is the day and a winner will be named.  But which way will it go?

Even though it is the last day, everyone is still taking their jobs just as seriously as ever, especially Regatta Director Iain Murray.  He started off by stating that he felt very privileged to hold the role of Regatta Director for the 34th America’s Cup.  Then he let us know the conditions for today are what he called “fresh to frightening.”  He was very clear that even though everyone would like to have this one race happen today which was certainly the goal of Race Management, Murray would NOT put the safety of these sailors at risk in order to accomplish that goal.  We all need to just wait and see how things would pan out in regard to the weather.

The wind limit was rather high at 24.4 knots and the forecast was for 20-25 knots which was slightly windier than it had been the previous day.  That seemed to be the fresh part.  Things started to get a little frightening after 1:15 pm (the scheduled start time for the race) as the wind limit would start to decrease at a rate of about a tenth of a knot every ten minutes as the flood tide decreased.  However, as is usually the case on the San Francisco Bay, the wind itself was anticipated to increase at the same time.  Indeed - Fresh to Frightening.

Stephen Barclay, CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority, gave us our final update from his side which was that 203 territories were currently signed on to watch the event.  He also believed that the Event Authority had delivered on their initial vision.  I remember seeing signs indicating that vision back at the first America’s Cup World Series event in Cascais, Portugal.  Back then I thought their marketing slogan was a bit of a stretch especially on the AC45‘s.  But today, with the AC72’s, I had to agree with their vision that we were watching ‘the best sailors in the fastest boats’.  Barclay was right - they had delivered. 

The final announcement at the media briefing was that the awards ceremony was scheduled for one hour after racing finished.  Providing we got the race in today, this WOULD happen.  Yes - the event, the vision and the journey were wrapping up.  As I left the media briefing for the last time I wanted to take a moment, perhaps it would be my only and last chance, to say thank you to Iain Murray.  I wanted to thank him for giving us the media briefings every day.  For me, these briefings (Murray himself actually) set the tone for the day and I really appreciated that.  But I knew that he would be in what I call “race mode” - already focused on the details of the day ahead, getting mentally prepared.  Murray is an America’s Cup sailor and a sailing world champion, among many other things and I wanted to respect his “race mode” especially on a fresh to frightening day like today.  I admire that intent focus and drive within these athletes as it is one of the things that make them great.  At that moment I particularly admired and wanted to honor that quality in Iain Murray so I just headed to my locker to get my gear for the day.

One thing that was done for sure were my boat shoes.  It was absolutely time to retire them.  I had this pair of tan Converse that I had been wearing every day during this summer of racing.  Converse make good boat shoes as the soles are light colored and they have decent grip, even if they get a little wet.  The problem was that these shoes had been soaked a few times with San Francisco Bay water and I had not properly rinsed and dried them.  I honestly had not had the time.  San Francisco Bay water is a little nasty and I knew the damage had been done so I kept wearing them.  There was no need to ruin a second pair.  I had been hoping they would just last until the end of the event but at this point they had become simply WRONG.  When I had to take them off to put on my foul weather gear, they smelled bad.  Really bad.  So bad that as soon as I would take off a shoe I would stand on top of it, hoping that this would prevent anyone from catching a whiff of the stench that was generated from whatever it was that had spawned from that bay water and was now living inside the canvas of my shoes.  Perhaps it was because it was the last day or perhaps it was because I hadn’t stood on them quick enough and the stench that had a life of its own and escaped and reached my nose, but I knew they would be thrown away at the end of the day no matter what.  

I head to the dock for my last photo boat dock out.  I’m a little sad but also so excited about the day.  I’m on-board with the same driver I’ve been with for the last four days and it feels right to finish this out with him.  There are four photographers on board today including Christophe, an amazing photographer.  For me, being on the water today, of all days, is a treat.

We head to the starting area.  The breeze is coming from the southwest which is good and as had been predicted.  At 1:00 pm it is blowing at about 20 knots so we were under the wind limit of 24.4 knots, at least for now.  As the countdown starts and the gun goes off, I find myself a little choked up.  But I’m still focused with my camera practically glued to my face, my world reduced to that which I can see through the viewfinder.  ETNZ wins the start and as both boats head to the first reaching mark OTUSA did a huge nose dive right in front of us!  OTUSA recovers and is off. ETNZ is in the lead by seven seconds around the first reaching mark.  I try to listen to the radio to know what is going on during the race as we are slowing working our way down toward the finish line but there is a lot of chatter on our media boat today as well as a lot of excitement, so it is sometimes hard to hear.  Both boats are going 38-40 knots on the downwind leg.  I look over and see that Larry Ellison is following our same path and I admit it is interesting to watch him as he watches the action with us.

ETNZ has held onto the lead, but just barely, as they round the leeward gate to port only three seconds ahead of OTUSA, who jibed late to a starboard rounding.  During the third leg which was the first upwind leg, OTUSA seemed to hit their mystery speed button.  They overtook ETNZ and rounded the windward gate 26 seconds ahead of the kiwis.

By the time we reach the finish line, we can see that OTUSA is clearly ahead.  They make the last rounding and are practically flying toward the finish line, which is right in front of us.  It is so hard to describe sitting in this small power boat that is pointing directly at this 72 foot winged monster coming at us at 50 MPH (or somewhere in the mid-40’s in knots).  It’s like standing on a train track and staring at a locomotive charging right for you.

As I stood there motionless on my tiny media boat I had no fear.  I was there to do my job.  Besides, I had been watching and following these teams for three years.  I trusted them and I trusted my media boat driver.  I had seen the sailors conquer the AC45’s and now they were mastering the AC72’s.  As their confidence grew in the handling of the AC45‘s the skippers had started to do a little showboating as they crossed the finish line during the AC45 events.  And the most confident and perhaps cocky of them all was OTUSA skipper Jimmy Spithill.  Here he was today, still pushing his boat and his crew to each of their limits.  And yet I’m sure he was in complete control and I knew he would give us a show.  In doing so, I also knew he would keep everyone safe - the fans, the media, his crew.  I had also seen him master the boat nicknamed Dogzilla.  This was the 90x90 foot wing sailed trimaran that Jimmy drove for his team to win the America’s Cup back on February 14, 2010 in Valencia, Spain.  I was on the water with them that day too on a friends and family boat.  I watched Jimmy make that trimaran fly.  There are plenty of videos available on-line and occasionally I’ll watch one.  I admit I get emotional every time I see Dogzilla.  But the recordings don’t do her justice.  She was what one might call a one hit wonder as she will never sail or race again.  I feel truly honored to have seen her in her true moments of glory with my own eyes.  And to see Jimmy appearing to be alone at the helm as he made her dance so gracefully across the water, then she would lift a hull and practically take flight.  It was one of the most beautiful and exquisite things I have ever seen.

So as Spithill once again headed for the finish line to complete the journey for his team to another America’s Cup win, I had what can only be called the “movie montage moment” where I had those ADD flashes from February 14, 2010, through the America’s Cup World Series events, to some of my own trials and tribulations along the way, to the friends I had made, to those who had been lost, to the Louis Vuitton Cup series and the summer of racing, to this exact moment.

The noise from the crowd on the dock above our boat snaps me back to my job at hand.  They are going positively wild as OTUSA approaches the line.  I feel my eyes starting to fill.  As OTUSA cross the finish line and the gun goes off - and I know this sounds cliche - a few tears escape as I just can’t hold them back.  I was overwhelmed and there were so many emotions in those tears.  Was it pride in the home team?  Was it sadness because my three year journey ended with that gun shot?  Was it relief that it was finally done?  Was it just a gut reaction to the moment?  Everyone is going absolutely insane and boats are appearing out of nowhere, all converging on the finish line.  My boat is right on the front line, in front of them all.  It was without question simply amazing. 

Forty-four seconds later ETNZ finishes and the crowd goes crazy again.  I can’t and don’t want to imagine how they must feel.  The iconic saying of the America’s Cup is that “There is no second.”  ETNZ is still the Louis Vuitton Cup champion.  Winning the Louis Vuitton Cup is the only way to get into the America’s Cup (without extensive legal counsel) but in this moment that seems to be forgotten.  If there is no second, then what are they?  I felt another wave of emotion, but this time it was mostly heartache and sympathy (but not pity) for this team.  

For the media boats, the on-water race is now on as we are about to have the “Napa Valley Sparkling Wine” (aka Champagne) moment.  We catch up to ETNZ just as they are catching up to OTUSA.  We are in between the two boats and I am blown away by what I see.  Every single member of ETNZ is applauding for OTUSA, giving them the thumbs up, and trading off at the helm so skipper Dean Barker can walk even closer to the team that has just beaten them to congratulate them.  The sincerity of these actions was, I hope, felt by everyone.  To see these sailors go from those crushing moments of defeat to then immediately rise above those emotions to pay homage to the other team was such a humbling display of integrity, honor and respect.  It was no act - of that I am beyond sure.  One might say the world was watching in those moments but I don’t think they could have seen or felt the significance and magnitude of those incredible, moving and powerful gestures that I experienced sandwiched there between these two boats.

Perhaps Queen Elizabeth’s Page was correct back in 1851 when he replied to her question after the Yacht America was about to win the race around the Isle of Wight about who is in second, that “Your Majesty, there is no second”  And perhaps one could then translate that to today’s incarnation of the America’s Cup as there is one winner and one loser since it is a contest between only two boats.  But today, in these moments for me there was no possible way to call ETNZ losers.  Granted, they didn’t win the Cup, but they also never gave up.  They never played their card to take a pass on a race.  They stood for, represented and embraced their country and their heritage.  I had a lot of respect for ETNZ.

OTUSA won the America’s Cup.  The racing was over but the day still had so much to bring.  The race for the media was still on as we jockeyed for position for the perfect photo op along with hundreds of other boats that were churning up the bay water into what felt like the agitation cycle on a washing machine.  Imagine sitting in that and trying to hold your camera to get “the shot.”  In these moments I still had complete trust in my driver.  It was everyone else on the water that I was fearful of.  We followed OTUSA for as long as we could, then headed back to the America’s Cup Park at Piers 27-29 to get ready for the awards ceremony and of course the celebrations.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Milestones and Going Back to Basics

Monday & Tuesday, September 23 & 24, 2013
ETNZ - 8 Match Point
OTUSA - 8 Match Point

The first announcement at our morning media briefing was that today the 34th America’s Cup became the longest America’s Cup in the history of the race, which started back in 1851.  This was day 17 and during that time we only had two days when we couldn’t race due to the conditions.  If you added in the time for the Louis Vuitton Cup, we were at something like day 83 or 84.  I don’t think anyone was expecting that this best of 17 races or first to score 9 would have gone this long.  I was still excited to have one more day.

Another milestone hit was one million visitors between the America’s Cup Park and the America’s Cup Village.  Stephen Barclay, CEO of the Event Authority, was very pleased in achieving this number and he was also happy with the racing and media coverage.

The weather today was warm and beautiful, but there was no marine layer which meant light winds.  Weather-wise we were dealing with the aftermath of an odd front that had recently moved through the area.  Regatta Director Iain Murray was anticipating about 9-10 knots of breeze at the start of the racing window, building to about 14-18 knots but he didn’t seem confident in getting in two races that day.  We just had to wait and see when the wind would fill in across the bay.

As has been the case lately, after our weather briefing the subject changed to the racing rules.  Today’s rules inquiries started with the possibility of making the course shorter to ensure getting the two scheduled races in for the day.  The answer to shortening the course was simply no.  Then someone else from the media asked if the historically litigious Oracle Team USA (OTUSA) would go to court over the two point penalty issued by the International Jury.  Thanks to the cheating scandal during the America’s Cup World Series and the ruling by the International Jury, OTUSA had started the regatta at minus two. Although the scoreboard reflected Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) at eight points which was eight wins for them, OTUSA had five points on the board but actually had seven wins.  In the event that OTUSA won both races today they would have nine wins.  The logic was that one could interpret the rules such that OTUSA with nine wins therefore won the Cup.  I found this as a rather clever argument.  However after the ruling came out from the International Jury with OTUSA receiving the two point penalty, the Event Authority had been very careful to state that the first team to have nine POINTS would win the Cup.  A subtle but very distinct difference between wins vs. points in a sport where usually one win equalled one point.  

In regard to OTUSA going back to court, Barclay stated that OTUSA Skipper Jimmy Spithill had been clear in earlier press conferences that his team had put the penalties behind them and were focused on winning the regatta on the water.  This was an interesting comment as it seemed to set OTUSA up as the bad guys if they actually did, in the end, take this to court. 

Our parting comment that morning came from Peter Rusch, Head of Internet, Photography and Social Media for the Event Authority who moderated the morning media briefings as well as the afternoon press conferences.  He reminded us that even though around the event it may seem like Groundhog Day, a broken record or having checked into the Hotel California where you never leave, that shouldn’t lessen our enthusiasm or excitement in regard to the event.  I had to agree.  

I felt challenged out on the water today.  Those of us who had been experiencing the broken record of each day as photographers and photo boat drivers were perhaps getting a bit tired.  There were new faces on the media boats today and they understandably asked a lot of questions such as can we do this or do that or go here or go there.  A lot of photography is making sure you are at the right place at the right time and this is not always as easy as it may seem.  There was a hierarchy in regard to the press boats - who was on which boat and where those boats could go depending on your press boat driver.   This was unwritten but those of us who had been working within this system for some time knew the drill. The newcomers didn’t know and I suppose it never hurts to ask your driver to go here or there, but many of us knew better.   And just because one boat got into position where you thought you would get “the shot” that didn’t mean you owned the spot.  Add in the tired factor and this was frustrating indeed.

Murray was right in regard to the racing that day as they were only able to get in one race, which marked the fifth win in a row for OTUSA.  At the post race press conference we were reminded that Russell Coutts, CEO of OTUSA, was the only person at this event to achieve that same statistic and it was when Coutts was with ENTZ and they were sailing against Alinghi which was the next team that Coutts signed on to sail with.

Today’s press conference did feel like Groundhog Day.  There were new reporters showing up and it seemed to me that they had not done their homework before entering the media center to attend the press conference.  Most of the old guard was still there - those of us who had been in the media center since the start.  The event was gaining attention and momentum which attracted more journalists.  Perhaps at this point in the longest America’s Cup in history, the old guard had run out of questions or had just asked them all.  Maybe they were just tired too.  I couldn’t blame anyone for that.  Perhaps that was why these eager newcomers were asking so many questions, most of which had been answered long ago.  These same questions generated the same responses from the sailors.  Spithill in particular seemed to have his standard stock media points to get across and I had to admit it reminded me of a scene from the movie Bull Durham where the seasoned Kevin Costner was trying to teach newcomer Tim Robbins how to talk to the media and gave him a few basic canned responses to be used in just about any situation.  Spithill had been coached and trained very well in this regard and came across very polished while serving us all his corporate lines.

The other hot topic of the day was the combination of OTUSA Tactician Sir Ben Ainslie and OTUSA Strategist Tom Slingsby who together worked the back end of the boat.  Tom and Ben.  Tom and Ben.  Tom and Jerry, I mean Ben.  Since I had been on a media boat just about every day I missed the television coverage during the races.  I saw bits and pieces and knew the basics of what people were seeing, but I didn’t get to hear the commentary from the sailors or the live feeds from the boats during racing.   Apparently the banter and discussions between Tom and Ben had caught people’s attention.  I admit that Tom and Ben had caught my attention long ago, without hearing any of their banter.

As I finished up for the day I started asking if people thought that tomorrow would be “Two for Tuesday” for OTUSA.  In order to keep the regatta going, OTUSA would have to keep winning and two races were scheduled.  Achieving Two for Tuesday at this point was certainly possible.  I just didn’t know if people other than OTUSA thought it was possible too.

On Tuesday morning I realized that I had returned to my usual morning routine.  Over the last week I had been rushed, had no coffee at home and never quite knew what the day, weather or marine life would bring even though the days schedule was the same routine.  Today I was back to my own regular schedule.  The only difference was that my morning preparations now included wearing a pin in support of the teams.  Was I becoming superstitious - believing that a change in my actions (or I should say a return to the routine I had followed at the start of the regatta) may somehow influence the days racing results?

This morning’s media briefing was focused on the achievements of the regatta.  Regatta Director Iain Murray reflected on how many firsts and milestones we had experienced and achieved during this event.  For example today OTUSA had the opportunity to win their sixth race in a row which would be the first time any team had won six in a row in the history of the America’s Cup.  Murray also expressed that this fascinating and exciting event had provided unprecedented competition.  Murray believed that we were all being educated about the sport of sailing and that because of the level of competition and the phenomenal television coverage we were all becoming experts in understanding the sport.  He believed that the progress of foiling and the sailing related technological advancements made during this event had created and started a huge movement within the sport of sailing.  I had to agree as I had received calls and comments from family and friends who never gave sailing a second thought before this event but were now glued to their TVs watching and they understood what was going on during the races.  Finally many of my friends and family were starting to understand my fanaticism in regard to this sport.  This was a first for me.  

The event as a whole had not always been smooth sailing or a bed of roses.  Stephen Barclay, CEO of the Event Authority, commented that the overall event (and I believe he was referring to the entire summer of sailing which included the Louis Vuitton Cup as well as the America’s Cup) had gotten off to a rough start.  But Barclay was not too hard on himself or his team as he acknowledged that when you embark on something this huge where you are changing the boats, having 55 days of racing over the course of one summer, changing the format of the regatta, creating new rules, dealing with city politics, etc., that you don’t always get everything right.  I thought it was good that Barclay acknowledged this fact.  It is important to look not only at what has gone well but also what has not so if you get the chance to do it again you know what to change and what to keep the same.  For example, if OTUSA wins the regatta and they decide to have the 35th America’s Cup in San Francisco, then what could be done to make it better?  I quietly hoped that my yacht club was thinking about this exact possibility and what they would do differently with the chance of a do-over.  As a member of a Bay Area yacht club, I was surprised by the lack of access that my yacht club membership had provided to me over the course of having this international event in my yacht club’s back yard (or bay as the case actually was.)  If there was a do-over, I wondered if that would change.  Just as Barclay had mentioned here, the challenge going forward, whether for the winner, the event authority or my local yacht club, was to pull out the good parts, learn from the other parts, and develop something to attract more teams, more fans, or more members respectively so we all had the best experience possible.  After all, the America’s Cup is the pinnacle of the sport.

This line of discussion evolved into mistakes that perhaps had been made during the event.  Murray brought up that fateful day back in May when Andrew “Bart” Simpson had died during training on the San Francisco Bay.  This was a sobering moment not only then and there in the media briefing but it had also been a sobering moment for the worldwide sailing community since the tragedy.  It was clear that Murray had been deeply and profoundly affected by the incident.  It was after this tragedy that Murray came out with 37 safety recommendations for the teams and event and at the time he was criticized for doing this.  However, even with those safety recommendations and restrictions such as those for the wind and time, and even with just two races possible per day, now that the end of the event was near, we had to admit that we had still experienced remarkable racing.

We moved on to the conditions for today’s racing.  The wind limit was a little higher than usual since we had a flood tide.  For the first race the wind limit was 24.7 knots and it was 24.1 knots for the second race.  Murray called today’s weather conditions fresh and cautioned us that for Wednesday we would be going from fresh to frightening.  This was the typical San Francisco Bay weather I had become use to over the years for this time of year.  Yes, everything seemed back to normal once again.

We would have the opportunity for two races so the question remained - would this be Two for Tuesday for OTUSA?  This was the only way they could stay alive in this regatta.

We headed out on the water and you could feel the excitement in the air.  As we headed toward the start line I noticed that the executive chalets that were built between the St. Francis Yacht Club and the Golden Gate Yacht Club were being torn down.  Obviously the sponsors didn’t believe this event could have lasted this long since deconstruction was happening.  The end was certainly near.

The boats began their pre-start maneuvers.  Over the radio we heard that the boats had collided twice during the pre-start and that it was ETNZ who suffered two penalties for not keeping clear.  Both teams were being very aggressive.  The gun went off for race one and OTUSA led at the start and stayed in front for the whole race, crossing the finish line 27 seconds ahead of ETNZ. 

Back we go for race two.  We were just to windward of the reaching mark as the boats came flying down that first leg.  ETNZ had won the start and was in the lead by five seconds as they rounded mark one traveling at 40 knots of boat speed in only 20 knots of wind.  This was incredible.  No one lowered their cameras until the boats were well down the second leg.  I was so overwhelmed with excitement at that moment with ETNZ clear ahead and the possibility that this was it, I blurted out “Everyone just stay CALM!”  I was known as being very quiet on the media boats so this made everyone, including our driver, laugh out loud.

But then in the third leg of the five leg race, OTUSA took the lead.  It was almost as if they had hit a light speed button similar to the one on the Millennium Falcon as OTUSA not only passed the kiwis on the upwind leg, but they were leading them by 57 seconds at the windward gate.  OTUSA won the second race of the day by 54 seconds.  It was Two for Tuesday for them after all.

It had all come down to one final race - winner take all.  At the post race press conference Dean Barker, skipper of ETNZ, looked better than he had in weeks.  A few other journalists noticed this as well.  OTUSA skipper Jimmy Sptihill was spouting his usual fighting comeback story and going on about the determination of his team.  Spithill had remarkably stated when they were down 6-1 “Imagine if these guys lost from here?  What an upset that would be.  I mean they’ve almost got it in the bag.  So that’s my motivation.  You know, that would be one hell of a story.  That would be one hell of a comeback and that’s the kind of thing I’d like to be a part of.”  Now those very words were holding true.  I don’t think any of us thought it would happen.  Of course this was also Spithill’s way of mentally picking apart his opponent.

Tomorrow would be a big day - it would be THE day.  Winner Take All.  I headed over to the Waiheke Island Yacht Club that evening.  The place was packed with fans of both teams, the international media, sponsors, but no sailors which was no surprise at all.  I don’t know how any of us were going to sleep that night.  And typical for the America’s Cup, the rumors were still flying like how ETNZ was going to play their “card” to excuse them from the race so they could have the chance to “regroup” like OTUSA had done.  Then there was the rumor that the whole event was going to be postponed until after the Rolex Big Boat Series (scheduled to start on the San Francisco Bay on Thursday going through Sunday.)  This rumor was apparently based on giving the sponsors time to rally and plan victory parties.  Then there was talk of different rudders and dagger boards on each side of the boat for OTUSA and that was the reason their boat was so fast.  I really didn’t know where people came up with these things, but it sure was entertaining.  And as with any rumor, one had to think that they were based on some sort of fact.  Tomorrow we would see and tomorrow we would have a winner.

Monday, September 23, 2013

What Now?

Saturday & Sunday, September 21 & 22, 2013
ETNZ - 8 Match Point

Early Saturday morning a weather front started moving across the San Francisco Bay.  I woke to the sound of rain which doesn’t usually happen in San Francisco in September.  As I walked down Pier 27 toward the media center that morning something else felt different in the air but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  I had not yet had my morning coffee as I had not been to the grocery store in weeks and my cupboards at home were bare.  Fortunately Nespresso was a sponsor of not only Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) but also of the America’s Cup event so the media center was equipped with its own Nespresso Cafe.  I was heading there first on this cold, damp morning.

As I approached the media center, I noticed that cartoonist Mark O’Brien had drawn a special comic on the front window.  My sense of these days being similar to groundhog day, with the same routine day after day and the international media being “stuck” in San Francisco was obviously shared by many.  Travel agents and the airlines were making a small fortune with all the flight change fees for these journalists and fans.  I even heard one Italian reporter grumbling that he had been in San Francisco for almost three months now between the Louis Vuitton Cup series and the America’s Cup and his visa was running out.  Welcome to the Hotel California indeed.

At the media briefing I learned what that odd feeling in the air was that I had felt on my way down the pier that morning.   The wind was coming from the south.  This happens quite often during the winter months in San Francisco but it was only September.  This time of year the wind comes from the west like clockwork, right through the Golden Gate Bridge and down the bay.  No wonder I thought something felt strange. The wind was coming from the wrong direction.

This change in the wind direction was actually a rather big problem.   The layout of the race course was somewhat like an oversized football or soccer field that stretched from the Golden Gate Bridge along the San Francisco city front past Alcatraz Island to Piers 27-29.  The usual wind would come in under the Golden Gate Bridge and basically blow down the course.  With the change in the wind direction, the race committee would have to change the layout of that field.  Instead of the “end zones” being at nine o’clock and three o’clock they would have to rotate them to noon and six o’clock. But then you have to figure in the shipping channels on the San Francisco Bay and the tides and currents that the teams had been studying for months at the 9:00/3:00 positions.  Basically we were looking at playing the game sideways and that simply wasn’t going to work - for anyone.

Regatta Director Iain Murray did offer the teams an alternate course for the day but they passed on the suggestion.  I couldn’t blame them for that decision.

There was still time before racing was scheduled to start and there was the possibility that the wind would clock around to a more westerly orientation.  The expected wind speed at race time was about 15 knots.  We just had to wait and see if it would be from the correct direction.

Then there was the rain.  For the dock out show, which was the fans daily opportunity to cheer on their teams, it was pouring.  Getting wet is nothing new for sailors and they had proper gear for such conditions.  I had a wind resistant jacket that morning but it did not help much in the way of being waterproof.  I owned such gear but had not thought to bring it with me that morning.  I was really suffering from that lack of coffee at home.  After the dock out show I was soaked.

The media boats headed out to the race course even though the wind had not quite clocked around enough.  It was still raining but was starting to taper off.  This was dedication and devotion to the sport.  There were many who passed on heading out for the day, but not me.  We sat out there on the water for what seemed like an eternity until the race committee finally postponed racing to the following day.  At least the had finally ended.

The afternoon press conference which normally would have been with the sailors was with Regatta Director Iain Murray and Event Authority CEO Stephen Barclay who hosted our morning media briefings.  The sailors were given a pass since there was no racing to report on that day.  It was confirmed at this press conference that the issue was the wind direction, not the amount of wind.  The wind strength was fairly consistent across the course at about 11 knots, however it was unstable.  The wind direction at the start line was coming from about 210 degrees, it was coming from 99 degrees at the bottom mark and it was at 220 degrees at the top mark - just all over the place.  None of this was good for the Race Committee.  I found it very interesting that we had now seen the full range of possibilities in regard to the wind from too much to too little to the wrong way.  Again it seemed like someone was trying to manipulate the weather and just hadn’t quite figured out how to make it just right - similar to how these two teams kept tweaking their  boats so they were also just right.

We were seeing significant improvements from these teams, especially from Oracle Team USA (OTUSA).  At the start of the regatta, when OTUSA would tack (or turn) the boat, they would slow to about 8 knots.  Now, in similar conditions, they were able to keep their boat speed up to about 17 knots, thus shaving much needed seconds off their time.  They had also drastically increased their boat speed going upwind and were now averaging around 31 knots.  Remember that the wind limit is only 23 knots so these boats were going faster than the wind.  (No - I am not even going to attempt to explain how that works as I don’t fully understand it, no matter how many time I visit the Nespresso Cafe.)

The day ended early and I was, as usual, happy to have the event last for at least one more day.  I stopped at the grocery store on my way home for a few supplies.

Stephen Barclay had mentioned in the afternoon press conference that we should all expect the unexpected.  At the time I believe he was referring to the wind.  On Sunday morning we were reminded of these words as a whale had been spotted on the San Francisco Bay that morning.  This is not a usual occurrence on the bay and I had visions of Green Peace swarming into the bay and stopping the America’s Cup.  There were strict protocols in place during the America’s Cup races to protect marine life.  This could actually be a race stopper for the day.  Unexpected indeed.

At least the wind and weather were cooperating today as conditions were back to normal with westerly winds between 10 knots and increasing to up to 20 knots for the day.  Jokingly Barclay reminded the media of his “expect the unexpected” comment yesterday and now there was the whale sighting so he asked us to please not kid about locust or plagues!  It did seem as though anything was possible at this point.

The fans were out in force that morning.  Was this going to be Super Sunday?  I headed out on the water and OTUSA won the first race.  Ok - lets go again.  ETNZ just needed that one last point.  They had been at Match Point since Wednesday and it was now Sunday.  OTUSA had now gained three points on their opponent. 

Between the races the media boat I was on followed ETNZ up the course toward the start line.  I was sitting up on the bow when I felt this light mist on my face.  It instantly reminded me of a moment in Venice, Italy during the America’s Cup World Series.  The French Energy Team, led by skipper Loick Peyron, had just won the regatta and was enjoying their champagne moment.  I was on the water that day in a media boat and we were just downwind from the Energy Team as they celebrated.  I remembered being able to taste the champagne in the air and felt the champagne mist on my face.  The mist I had just felt from ETNZ on this Sunday afternoon as we headed toward the start of tace two was exactly the same.  Was this a sign?

Apparently no.  OTUSA won both races that day and it was Super Sunday for them.  The ETNZ fans were not giving up.  As we reached the dock I heard a group of kiwi’s singing to the tune of The Token’s song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” a chorus of “a win away ... a win away ... a win away ...”

Once again tomorrow might be the day.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Things Are Shifting

Friday, September 20, 2013
ETNZ - 8 Match Point

The first shift I noticed on Friday morning was in the weather.  It was foggy and overcast.  The atmosphere in the media center was calm and quiet that morning as well.  It also seemed as if there weren’t quite as many people in the media center. 

The weather and mood that morning were met by a somber start to the media briefing.  After we were all seated, Bob Fisher walked to the front of the room and stood at a podium which was not used at our morning media briefings.  Bob Fisher is widely known as an authority on the America’s Cup and is one of the world’s preeminent yachting journalists.  Fisher looked up from the podium, then began to deliver the obituary he had written for a fellow journalist.  I admit that I did not know who this journalist was nor had I known of his passing but it was clear that many in the room did.  Listening to Fisher was mesmerizing.  He is truly a phenomenal writer and hearing him read his written words regarding this journalist left me with the feeling that I had actually known the man.  My eyes teared up when Fisher had finished his story and received a subtle nod from Regatta Director Iain Murray and a heartfelt handshake from fellow preeminent yachting journalist PJ Montgomery.  It was an incredibly moving moment. 

As the solemn mood shifted to the usual events of the day, I learned that the change in the weather was due to some pre-frontal conditions and that whatever the front was would move through the area overnight.  Regatta Director Iain Murray was confident that they would get the first race in for the day, but he was not as sure about a second race.  I was secretly wondering if we would even need a second race with Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) at match point.

In many ways our morning briefings could have been recorded and replayed day after day after day.  It was much like Bill Murray’s role in the movie “Groundhog Day”.  At first it was in regard to the overly consistent weather and too much wind and now it was in regard to the rules and questioning of those rules.  Today’s rule bending inquiry was about the coast guard permit and what would happen if we could not get in enough races to determine a winner before the permit expired.  I thought this question was a little silly as it seemed premature.  ETNZ only needed to win one more and Oracle Team USA (OTUSA) needed seven wins so surely the racing would be done before the permit ran out.  But the always prepared Murray stated that they had been talking to the Coast Guard just in case and that everyone was working together to be prepared for such scenarios.  Murray did, however, have some safety concerns with so much racing and with the regatta lasting so long, such as exhausting the team members and over stressing the boats.  These technological marvels we were watching literally fly around the San Francisco Bay at more than twice the speed of the wind, had enormous stress loads on them and huge amounts of structural pressure.  Murray expressed his concern that we needed to be sure the boats were receiving the maintenance they needed.  This seemed like a very valid thought to me.

As we headed out for the first race of the day, the conditions seemed ideal for that superstitious 13th race that had been postponed the day before.  The gun went off to start the race and ETNZ took the lead.  This could be it!  But then the wind died - not completely - but enough to slow everything down, really slow it down.  ETNZ had a significant lead over OTUSA and would have easily won the race but there was a time limit of 40 minutes per race.  ETNZ was on the last leg with just over one nautical mile to go and was heading for the finish line when time, like the wind, ran out.  This was devastating.  For the last several days we were fighting against too much wind and had to postpone races.  Just yesterday OTUSA had asked to change the rules to a higher wind limit.  Today there wasn’t enough wind for ETNZ to finish the race and also the regatta as they would have received that last needed point for the overall win.  This was unbelievable.  My heart sank for ETNZ.  They were so very close and yet too far.
We worked our way back to the start line.  Somehow ETNZ had to put that last race behind them - get it out of their heads and focus on yet another attempt at Race 13.  Sailing is not only a physical sport but a very mentally challenging sport as well.  I had to admire the gumption, drive, desire, dedication and determination of ETNZ in those moments between the races that day.  The Race Committee started Race 13 for the third time and it proved to be an unlucky race for ETNZ.  After too much wind yesterday and the race being postponed, to too little wind today and the race exceeding the time limit, the third time was a charm for OTUSA who on that third try crossed the finish line first.  The score was now ETNZ 8 (match point) and OTUSA 3, having actually won 5 times since they started the regatta with a two point penalty.  

At the press conference that afternoon OTUSA Skipper Jimmy Spithill was quick to remind the media of how his crew had been put together only four days before the event started.  He reminded everyone of how OTUSA had lost their wing trimmer as he had been banned from sailing in the event.  He also reminded everyone how OTUSA had started the regatta two points behind.  He neglected to mention that each of these obstacles for his team were put into place due to a cheating scandal based on the America’s Cup World Series.  Was this just selective memory on Spithill’s part or was he setting up the media with the excuses to be used when OTUSA lost the Cup?  Or perhaps these were just more mind games coming from Spithill. His opponents had to be feeling bad enough, having had the Cup within their grasp during today’s first race only to have the clock run out.  Now they were being reminded of the hardships the OTHER team was facing.  Mind games indeed.

The press conference ended on the topic of skill, superstitions and luck.  It was the kiwi’s who responded the most with Ray Davies, tactician for ETNZ, stating that he believed that luck beats skill every time and skipper Dean Barker voiced that you never walk away from luck.  I wondered if they were wearing red socks.

That night was yet another concert at the America’s Cup Pavilion.  Tonight’s headliner was Edward Sharpe and I had received tickets to the show.  I made my usual stop at Pier 23 that afternoon before the show but the shift that had been occurring all day had hit Pier 23 as well, as the usual suspects were nowhere to be found.  It was oddly quiet that afternoon.  Something in the air had definitely changed and there was that front that was about to move through.  It almost seemed as though someone had been manipulating the weather and race conditions until OTUSA was able to win Race 13.  Could there be software to do such things and if so, who might have the money to develop such a thing?  Yes - I did wonder about this.