Friday, September 20, 2013

Them's The Rules

Thursday, September 19, 2013
ETNZ - 8 Match Point

I have always been a believer in rules and that rules are meant to be followed.  At our yacht club there are by-laws to govern us.  When I managed the 1D35 class, the Class Rules were my guiding principles.  For the America’s Cup there was not only the Protocol but also the safety recommendations to follow.  The teams had agreed to abide by these rules before the races began.  We now had only two teams left so why was it that there seemed to be constant discussions about bending or changing the rules?

As I reflect on what happened over the next few days of the regatta, it seemed as though every day someone was asking or trying to  change the rules.  The “rule change of the day” usually came up first in the morning media briefing and then was debated further in the post race press conference.

The morning briefings were still my favorite part of the day.  On this particular Thursday morning I wondered if this would be the last one - and each day following I thought the same thing.  Stephen Barclay, CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority, must have been struck by the same notion that morning as he called the moment bitter-sweet.  On the one hand he said it was sobering to be sitting there that day after three years.  And yet he said he felt good  because the Event Authority had fulfilled their ambition regarding the overall event and that the America’s Cup Park and America’s Cup Village had 860,000 visitors to date.  The Event Authority’s highlight show was ranking well around the world and they also calculated that about 1/4 of the entire population of New Zealand was watching the America’s Cup coverage live via TV.  I think another 1/4 of the New Zealand population was right here in San Francisco for the event as those kiwi’s were still everywhere.  

The forecast for the day was getting predictable and I wondered if we would get two races in.  As it turned out, we did not with Oracle Team USA (OTUSA) winning the first race and the second race, which was the 13th race of the regatta, being postponed.  Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) was still at match point.

At today’s post race press conference I noticed that the four sailors were all still in their full racing gear.  Usually they would change a bit and remove at least some of their gear, but not today.  Dean Barker, skipper of ETNZ seemed to have this far away look in his eyes as if his mind was somewhere else.  He looked out at something over the heads of the reporters and almost seemed surprised when he was asked a question.  To be fair, Jimmy Spithill, skipper of OTUSA, was usually the one in the spotlight and at that day’s press conference Spithill was joined by Sir Ben Ainslie, the tactician for OTUSA, who was looking directly at this audience, keenly aware of everything that was going on in the room.

It was in that day’s press conference that the ever-confident Spithill said that yes - they could win seven more races and with a glance at Dean Barker asked the media to imagine if the other team lost from here - what a story that would be.  These were very bold statements that even took the most seasoned reporters a little by surprise.  Spithill also mentioned that his team had sent a letter to ETNZ asking for higher wind limits and stating that if a race started that it had to be finished.  So OTUSA wanted to change the rules mid-regatta.  Dean Barker took this opportunity to remind Spithill that before the regatta began ETNZ had asked for a higher wind limit of 25 knots and OTUSA at that time wanted the wind limit to be 20 knots.  A compromise was reached at 23 knots, which was the wind limit for the regatta.  I had to agree with Dean’s next comment which questioned why half way through a regatta OTUSA would ask to change the rule to have a higher limit when OTUSA had wanted a lower limit in the beginning.  It was not right to change something in the middle of the event that had been agreed to before the start.  Spithill replied that his team just wanted to race.

As I sat in that press conference listening to the rules debate, I wondered if Spithill realized that most of the reporters in the room had already written the obituary for his team.  Where was this overly confident, even cocky, attitude in Spithill coming from?  Was this some sort of mind game he was trying to play with Barker?  Was this why Barker looked distracted - because he was simply trying to tune out Spithill and not let the man get into his head?  And what about the teams overall?  The buzz in the media center after the press conference was that perhaps ETNZ had peaked in their learning curve and regarding optimizing the performance of their boat while OTUSA was still on the rise.  This regatta was not just a sailboat race but also a design challenge.  No one knew exactly what the design differences were between the boats and the sailors were still learning the capabilities of these new machines.

This debate continued that afternoon at Pier 23 where the usual suspects had gathered to further debrief on the day’s events.   With the 13th race upon us again the next day and still being on match point, talk also turned to superstitions.  My friend Jeremy had run a story that morning about a New Zealand tree that was found planted in front of the Golden Gate Yacht Club.  He had received over 8,000 hits on the story throughout the day so belief in superstitions were certainly strong.  And I had heard that there had been a run on red socks which I didn’t quite understand but clearly they meant something to the kiwis.

I was home early that night as I prepared for what I anticipated as another groundhog day on Friday.  But the weather conditions among other things were starting to shift just a little.  Friday we would try again for race #13 and for one team that 13th race would prove to be lucky.

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