Monday, September 23, 2013

What Now?

Saturday & Sunday, September 21 & 22, 2013
ETNZ - 8 Match Point

Early Saturday morning a weather front started moving across the San Francisco Bay.  I woke to the sound of rain which doesn’t usually happen in San Francisco in September.  As I walked down Pier 27 toward the media center that morning something else felt different in the air but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  I had not yet had my morning coffee as I had not been to the grocery store in weeks and my cupboards at home were bare.  Fortunately Nespresso was a sponsor of not only Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) but also of the America’s Cup event so the media center was equipped with its own Nespresso Cafe.  I was heading there first on this cold, damp morning.

As I approached the media center, I noticed that cartoonist Mark O’Brien had drawn a special comic on the front window.  My sense of these days being similar to groundhog day, with the same routine day after day and the international media being “stuck” in San Francisco was obviously shared by many.  Travel agents and the airlines were making a small fortune with all the flight change fees for these journalists and fans.  I even heard one Italian reporter grumbling that he had been in San Francisco for almost three months now between the Louis Vuitton Cup series and the America’s Cup and his visa was running out.  Welcome to the Hotel California indeed.

At the media briefing I learned what that odd feeling in the air was that I had felt on my way down the pier that morning.   The wind was coming from the south.  This happens quite often during the winter months in San Francisco but it was only September.  This time of year the wind comes from the west like clockwork, right through the Golden Gate Bridge and down the bay.  No wonder I thought something felt strange. The wind was coming from the wrong direction.

This change in the wind direction was actually a rather big problem.   The layout of the race course was somewhat like an oversized football or soccer field that stretched from the Golden Gate Bridge along the San Francisco city front past Alcatraz Island to Piers 27-29.  The usual wind would come in under the Golden Gate Bridge and basically blow down the course.  With the change in the wind direction, the race committee would have to change the layout of that field.  Instead of the “end zones” being at nine o’clock and three o’clock they would have to rotate them to noon and six o’clock. But then you have to figure in the shipping channels on the San Francisco Bay and the tides and currents that the teams had been studying for months at the 9:00/3:00 positions.  Basically we were looking at playing the game sideways and that simply wasn’t going to work - for anyone.

Regatta Director Iain Murray did offer the teams an alternate course for the day but they passed on the suggestion.  I couldn’t blame them for that decision.

There was still time before racing was scheduled to start and there was the possibility that the wind would clock around to a more westerly orientation.  The expected wind speed at race time was about 15 knots.  We just had to wait and see if it would be from the correct direction.

Then there was the rain.  For the dock out show, which was the fans daily opportunity to cheer on their teams, it was pouring.  Getting wet is nothing new for sailors and they had proper gear for such conditions.  I had a wind resistant jacket that morning but it did not help much in the way of being waterproof.  I owned such gear but had not thought to bring it with me that morning.  I was really suffering from that lack of coffee at home.  After the dock out show I was soaked.

The media boats headed out to the race course even though the wind had not quite clocked around enough.  It was still raining but was starting to taper off.  This was dedication and devotion to the sport.  There were many who passed on heading out for the day, but not me.  We sat out there on the water for what seemed like an eternity until the race committee finally postponed racing to the following day.  At least the had finally ended.

The afternoon press conference which normally would have been with the sailors was with Regatta Director Iain Murray and Event Authority CEO Stephen Barclay who hosted our morning media briefings.  The sailors were given a pass since there was no racing to report on that day.  It was confirmed at this press conference that the issue was the wind direction, not the amount of wind.  The wind strength was fairly consistent across the course at about 11 knots, however it was unstable.  The wind direction at the start line was coming from about 210 degrees, it was coming from 99 degrees at the bottom mark and it was at 220 degrees at the top mark - just all over the place.  None of this was good for the Race Committee.  I found it very interesting that we had now seen the full range of possibilities in regard to the wind from too much to too little to the wrong way.  Again it seemed like someone was trying to manipulate the weather and just hadn’t quite figured out how to make it just right - similar to how these two teams kept tweaking their  boats so they were also just right.

We were seeing significant improvements from these teams, especially from Oracle Team USA (OTUSA).  At the start of the regatta, when OTUSA would tack (or turn) the boat, they would slow to about 8 knots.  Now, in similar conditions, they were able to keep their boat speed up to about 17 knots, thus shaving much needed seconds off their time.  They had also drastically increased their boat speed going upwind and were now averaging around 31 knots.  Remember that the wind limit is only 23 knots so these boats were going faster than the wind.  (No - I am not even going to attempt to explain how that works as I don’t fully understand it, no matter how many time I visit the Nespresso Cafe.)

The day ended early and I was, as usual, happy to have the event last for at least one more day.  I stopped at the grocery store on my way home for a few supplies.

Stephen Barclay had mentioned in the afternoon press conference that we should all expect the unexpected.  At the time I believe he was referring to the wind.  On Sunday morning we were reminded of these words as a whale had been spotted on the San Francisco Bay that morning.  This is not a usual occurrence on the bay and I had visions of Green Peace swarming into the bay and stopping the America’s Cup.  There were strict protocols in place during the America’s Cup races to protect marine life.  This could actually be a race stopper for the day.  Unexpected indeed.

At least the wind and weather were cooperating today as conditions were back to normal with westerly winds between 10 knots and increasing to up to 20 knots for the day.  Jokingly Barclay reminded the media of his “expect the unexpected” comment yesterday and now there was the whale sighting so he asked us to please not kid about locust or plagues!  It did seem as though anything was possible at this point.

The fans were out in force that morning.  Was this going to be Super Sunday?  I headed out on the water and OTUSA won the first race.  Ok - lets go again.  ETNZ just needed that one last point.  They had been at Match Point since Wednesday and it was now Sunday.  OTUSA had now gained three points on their opponent. 

Between the races the media boat I was on followed ETNZ up the course toward the start line.  I was sitting up on the bow when I felt this light mist on my face.  It instantly reminded me of a moment in Venice, Italy during the America’s Cup World Series.  The French Energy Team, led by skipper Loick Peyron, had just won the regatta and was enjoying their champagne moment.  I was on the water that day in a media boat and we were just downwind from the Energy Team as they celebrated.  I remembered being able to taste the champagne in the air and felt the champagne mist on my face.  The mist I had just felt from ETNZ on this Sunday afternoon as we headed toward the start of tace two was exactly the same.  Was this a sign?

Apparently no.  OTUSA won both races that day and it was Super Sunday for them.  The ETNZ fans were not giving up.  As we reached the dock I heard a group of kiwi’s singing to the tune of The Token’s song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” a chorus of “a win away ... a win away ... a win away ...”

Once again tomorrow might be the day.

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