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.

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