February 16, 2010

An underwhelming Cup

(Stop by here every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column by John Vigor.)

THE AMERICA’S CUP MATCH between Switzerland and America has come and gone with hardly anybody noticing. Nobody should be surprised. It wasn’t really between Switzerland and America. It was a grudge match between two grumpy men with too much money on their hands, billionaires Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli.

Their boats weren’t crewed by Americans and Swiss respectively. Like pirate ships of yore, they were crewed by mercenaries of sundry nationalities who were attracted by treasure chests of loot rather than national pride.

The 2010 series will be remembered not so much as a test of sailing skill or all-round seamanship as a showcase for highly advanced design and technology in two sailing vehicles with little in common except their unseaworthiness and their huge irrelevance.

Nevertheless, what the big boys do with their money is their own business. Ellison, the challenger, must be grinning like a Cheshire cat now, not only because he won both races by embarrassingly large margins but also because he now controls future Cup races. And that, handled correctly, means more fame and fortune. He has said the next Cup series will be sailed in the U.S.A. but no decision has been taken yet on what kind of boats will be raced.

Irrelevant or not, I couldn’t help watching the Internet reruns of both races. The spectacle of a space-age trimaran sizzling along on one ama at 33 knots in 8 knots of breeze, with the helmsman isolated in a pod 40 feet above the water, is quite one to behold.

It’s nothing like the racing I used to know, although I must admit we had our cut-throat moments. After coming consistently last in a series of dinghy races, I bought new sails that made the boat much faster. But to fool the opposition I plastered Band-Aids all over the new mainsail to make it look old and blown-out. They couldn’t believe their eyes when I unexpectedly flew past them on the beat and they just went to bits thereafter. It’s surprising how great a part psychology plays in sailboat racing.

The great pity about the late lamented America’s Cup is that it featured nothing most of us can relate to in our own sailing experience. It was far removed from the kind of sailing familiar to amateur sailors and their landlubber friends.

We can only hope that in the next series Ellison will widen the public appeal by racing in boats closer in nature to those owned by Joe the Plumber than those only Wall Street CEOs can afford. I wouldn’t be too hopeful, though. I suspect he’s too attached to that fancy, high-tech, 220-foot-high, wing sail to go back to ordinary soft sails.

Today’s Thought
If millionaires and corporations want to spend their money trying to drown one another — the movers and shakers are still millionaires and corporations at that level, and the rest of them are glorified galley slaves — then who am I to try to stop them?
— Ira Berkow, NY Times, 10 Feb 87

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb #15
Binoculars. Every boat should carry two pairs of binoculars, a good pair of 7 x 50 night glasses for the skipper’s use only, and any cheap pair for visitors who keep changing the damn focus and won’t use the strap.

“How was the movie?”
“Terrible. I had to change my seat four times.”
“Some man bothering you?”
“Yeah — finally.”


Mike said...

I was hoping never again to see another post about this circus event.

But it was reassuring toe read yours and to know that at least someone else shares my views.


Aaron Headly said...

I'll admit that any sailing race that costs more in legal fees than it does in sailboats (and we're talking about astonishingly expensive sailboats) leaves a sour taste in my mouth. But: looking at the history of the race — yes, even the 'Golden Age' of the race — it is filled with arguments about the rules and scores of astonishingly expensive sailboats.

The America's Cup has, also, always been about technical innovation (damn the cost).

Same as it ever was? I think I'll just go back and re-read Uffa Fox on racing across the Atlantic in the thirties. Or racing sliding-seat canoes.