Sunday, February 7, 2010

Another Tack

I suddenly find myself sucked into the America's Cup yacht race again.

I'm always a bit of a Johnny-come-lately with this; it's something I'm generically interested in, but I don't follow the deliberations during the off-years very closely, and the actual races tend to sneak up on me unawares unless something reminds me. The races aren't run very regularly, and I don't have much connection to sailing in my day-t0-day life. But I have done a fair share of sailing growing up, and I've always had a love of it. I looked the other day to see when the next series would be, and I was shocked to see it was only days away.

Well, my peek at the race schedule was like coming home and finding your kids fighting and practically burning your house down. Things with the Cup this year are quite topsy-turvy. The challenger and defender have been in a series of bitter court battles, with the result that the usual match races to determine who gets to challenge have been bypassed. This litigation has caused a significant delay of the racing--a couple years, I think--but as I sit here in KY on Sunday night, the boats are scheduled to leave the harbor in Valencia, Spain in about half an hour--midnight my time, 6:10 Monday Morning Valencia time--for race #1. The relations between the two teams with all the litigation are quite frosty, and there has been some question as to whether both teams will show up and be ready to race. We'll know shortly, I guess.

The biggest change for this year involves the boats. The yachts are radically different than anything that has ever been seen in the Cup before, and they are shockingly advanced technically. The defender, the Swiss Alinghi team, is sailing a huge composite-construction catamaran; and the challenger, the American BMW / Oracle team, is sailing an immense carbon fiber trimaran. Both boats are the agreed-upon maximum size of 90' in length and look more like space ships than sailboats, the BMW / Oracle boat especially; it's quite surreal. Both boats are so advanced that they are said to be able to achieve speeds up to three times the wind speed. For a variety of reasons the teams have agreed to a maximum wind of 15 knots for race days, meaning the boats could achieve upwards of 45 knots. For a sailing vessel, this is insane. This is ice boat territory.

Purists are up in arms, as everything has changed: the size and shape of the boats, the size of the crews (the beefy teams of "grinders" to power the winches are not needed on the new boats), the layout of the course. Much of the 150+ years of sailing tradition are out the window.

As I say, I don't have enough knowledge and familiarity with the old traditions to be much disturbed, and it was never the tradition per se that grabbed me. But in a century and a half the sport has evolved into something quite fine. The old traditions brought us a lot of fantastic elements: the beautiful design lines, the intense and very dramatic starting spectacles, the perilous tacking duels, the tactics and strategy played out by the various specified roles on the boats: skipper, navigator, tactician, strategist. Some of these things are intrinsic to sailing, and to sailboat racing. But America's Cup racing had become a rarefied sport, one with millions of dollars behind it and high stakes all round. So changes are kind of big news, and changes like we're seeing this year are earth-shaking.

Whatever my feelings about change in the sport, one look at the new boats and I'm absolutely hooked. Looking at the BMW / Oracle boat, this is clearly a device--thoroughbred in design and insanely expensive--toward which huge resources have been aimed for one goal: to get over the water as quickly as sail power can manage. Beneath all the tradition and rules, this is the very essence of racing. The hull is actually three hulls, held in rigid alignment by all-carbon-fiber construction--like a Formula One car. The huge mainsail is not a traditional fabric sail at all (though in recent years the yachts have not used what most people would think of as normal sails), but something much like a massive aircraft wing, a rigid hollow structure with a huge, 9-segment "flap" on the trailing edge which is used to shape the sail.

The whole structure is very stiff and very light, so that with moderate wind two of the three hulls are lifted out of the water, leaving relatively little wetted surface to resist forward movement. Though the boat has undergone sailing trials, today's race will be the first time the boat has sailed competitively.

So it should be an exciting day. (Alas, the race itself is still three hours away, so a fella has to sleep. Here's hoping the webcast will replay.)

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