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.

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