Thursday, September 26, 2013

We Have A Winner (Part 1)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013
ETNZ - 8
OTUSA - 9

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.













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