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.

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