Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Reflections on the 33rd America’s Cup - by Steve Orsini

Reflections on the 33rd America’s Cup
by Steve Orsini

Saturday 6 February:  Arriving at Valencia Nord train station from Bacelona Sants, I take a cab down for Port America’s Cup to BMW Oracle’s Base 8 where I will meet Tim Smyth, one of the two principals owning Core Builders.

Base 8 has people coming and going,  as does the Alinghi Base next door,  but the rest of the bases are ghosts, some with their America’s Cup Class 5 boats from 2007 sitting in shrink wrap- frozen there by the long, twisted road to this 33rd America’s Cup.  I was here in 2007 and enjoyed all the activity from the wild colors of South Africa’s Shosholoza, to the swank Prada base where sleek, tanned Italian women paid 100 euros for a sailing cap because it said Prada on it. 

Alinghi 5 sat in the water tied quay-side in front of the Swiss base looking powerful and menacing.  Swiss fans with Swiss flags and cowbells seem everywhere.

Tim Smyth drives us into the commercial port.  Just to get into this part of the port requires a special badge not because of the Cup but because of terrorist threats, not from the middle east but from ETA- Basque separatists.

The BMW Oracle (BMOR) base is bustling.  Around it are walls of neatly stacked containers.  These not only help sequester the base but kept the 60 knot winds that hit the port a few days earlier from flattening the big white tent.  If it had collapsed,  the wing, housed inside,  would have sustained serious damage.  Despite tie downs applied during the storm, the ridge of the tent was flexing three meters from side to side.  The Swiss have a tent next to their base in the America’s Cup Port and it went down, but only sails were inside.  

The 223 foot long wing lies on its starboard side on carriages.   Despite workers near the wing, giving some sense of proportion, the size of the wing is hard to comprehend.  Its massive base reveals a peak at its carbon fiber structure, but more complex is the carbon fiber yoke with a series of lines running from it into the mast.  This yoke with its spider web of lines operates the bewildering array of flaps that control the wing’s shape-  the heart of its power.  I meet Mike here.  He is from Washington State and applied the FAA approved fabric that covers the wing.  Suddenly comes the realization of how vulnerable a project like this is.  There has to be a specialist on hand for each potential problem area from wing fabric, to hydraulics, to titanium fitting failures-  success means each facet of the team and each component must function flawlessly. 

February 7, Early morning darkness at Commercial Base--  The wing is rolled out of the tent.  USA 17 has been brought off her mooring, a lone ball floating in the middle of the harbor.  She is moored tightly dock side.  As a stunning sunrise paints the high stratus clouds a riotous red, an Italian rigger hikes back and forth on the leading edge of the wing securing the shrouds.  Two cranes work to cant the base of the mast to its titanium bearing.   The gin pole on the trimaran takes the strain of the port shouds, hoisting the wing to about a 45 degree angle. The cranes let go and the mast is suspended there, canting the boat heavily onto the starboard amma.

Paul Cayard materializes dock-side to watch the mast go up.  Morgan Larson appears from one of the RIBS idling dockside.  The two pro sailors talk.  Cayard may be on board for the day’s practice runs.  RIBS maneuver under the cross beams and nudge the awkward tri with her half raised wing back out to the mooring buoy.  Only when her center hull is moored snugly to the buoy, with the RIBS working to keep her directly into the wind, is the wing slowly hoisted to vertical.  The load on the jin pole purchases is about 4 tons with the wing at the 45 degree angle.  Keeping the wing directly into the wind and stalled is the only way to insure that the boat does not begin to sail with destructive force.  Again comes the thought of how critical each step is.  If anything is inadvertently damaged at this late date, the entire two and a half year effort could end in disaster.  Who is more important now, the riggers, the boat builders, Mike from Washington, the sailors--- each individual must contribute to the effort without mistake.

Later in the day, Tobal Pirez, who works for BMW Oracle Racing and has lived in Anacortes,  and his wife take Tim Smyth and I,  out on his high speed runabout.  The day is overcast with a breeze fretting the sea’s face.  Far, far out we spot the wing high against the horizon.  We are ten miles off shore before we catch up to USA 17.   A helicopter hovers overhead like an annoying dragon fly, with several high speed RIBS following the loping, albatross shape of the tri.   As we near her, she raises a jib turns away and sails off so fast we can not catch her even though we must be doing 25 knots.  After the sprint, she turns into the wind.  A foresail is quickly furled.   She raises a large genoa.  The crew is working different sails in this 10 knot breeze.  Two hours pass, we must turn to the land. 

After a long run into the coast, we near the entrance to the Puerto America’s Cup and see Alinghi 5 lying about two miles to the north of the harbor entrance moving slowly back and forth under main sail only.   We  change course closing with her only to find a major flotilla following her like lamprey around a shark.  At one point as we idle closer, a larger RIB with the Swiss Flag angles strait for us.   She continues to lean on us with only a 15 foot separation forcing us away. 

The breeze has died to only 4 knots.  First Alinghi raises a jib, but quickly drops it.  Then she sets a genoa, bears off the wind, a hull quickly lifts and she is away, with explosive acceleration.  The amma stays high.  She moves away with the flotilla at full speed trying to keep up.  Her speed in this light air gives a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach.

February 8, 2010.  Race Day 1.  The wind has blown hard in the night.  Smyth is fretting about the wing.  All night a crew of A Cat sailors has been onboard baby sitting the wing,  fighting the swirling gusts in the harbor darkness to keep the wing in a stall.  Smyth’s concern is that the high winds and swirling gusts will damage the wing or drive the boat to some extremity of breaking force.

Down by the Vela y Vents Building in Port America’s Cup, at the big outdoor screen, the Swiss fans are everywhere.  Mine seems the only white BMW Oracle hat in a crowd of 1500. The race is cancelled. 

February 9, 2010 is a lay day, by agreement, but again why waste a potential race day especially when the previous day’s race was cancelled.

The Vela Bar, established 1908 is a narrow small bar, a wine rack to the ceiling on one side with Iberico hams hanging from the wall behind the counter on the other side. The Iberico ham is a delicacy in this region which is cured not cooked.  It is served sliced very thinly like prosciutto.  As we hunch over glasses of red wine an a plate of Iberico, Mark “Tugboat” Turner and Smyth are not happy with the delay.   I throw out the idea that we must have, win, lose or draw, a day in Anacortes to celebrate Core Builders and the fact that USA 17 was  “made in Anacotes.”

“You get it set up, “ said Turner “  we win- I will get the Cup there.”

At the Vela, we meet three guys- well,  they kind of introduce themselves when they see Tim Smyth’s BMW Oracle shirt.  Turns out they are from Australia and fly the Ultra Lights for Alinghi.  They are sent aloft to spot the wind.  They are an independent company flying the ultra lights they build.   They comment that the Swiss team is running a very tight budget.  They can not even get Alinghi tee shirts. 

February 10, 2010:  The day dawns clear, with a vibrant sun and a good breeze up.  When I arrive at  Port America’s Cup at 9:00 am, there is no activity on Alinghi,  The Race Committee, at sea,  is looking at the conditions.  By 11:00 am, the day is great in the harbor area, sun, blue sky, breeze. There is no activity on Alinghi for a long time.  Finally around 10:30 am, a guy comes out with a child in his arms and jumps up and down on the Alinghi inter-hull webbing using it as a trampoline.   He goes into the base again, but nothing else stirs. 

If this had been any other event but the 33rd America’s Cup, the competitors would be out on the course completing Race 1.  At about 12:30 pm, Harold Bennett, the Principal Race Officer (PRO),  calls no race for the day.  The reason given is a  significant swell running 10 miles out at sea where the course is to be set.  As we overlook the sea from the northern pier end entrance of Port America’s Cup, it seems a gorgeous day for sailing- missed.

February 11, 2010:  Another lay day, the wind is up but the temperature is dropping.  The forecast calls for freezing temperatures this night. At the big outdoor screen, the Swiss fans are still out in force.  Two very white guys, dressed in Arabic long desert robes, carry Swiss flags and ring cow bells.  Maybe promises were made to return the Cup regatta to the United Arab Emerates.

February 12, 2010:  The boats dock out and are on the sea, waiting.  We are in the BMW Oracle Base 8 Racing Hospitality Suite with its huge flat screen and a series of smaller screens around the large room with two bars.  Hours pass, until finally, Harold Bennett has the conditions he wants, about 5-7 knots with the wind from about 190 degrees at all quadrants of the course. 

The start is heaven and hell:  the favored starboard start had been won in the coin toss by USA 17 last Sunday, which seems an age ago.   As the two great multihulls converge,  Alinghi does not have enough speed to cross, but continues like a deer in the head lights until USA 17 must turn hard into the wind to avoid contact.  Penalty goes to USA 17. 

But then the two boats hang in a very long dial up.  Alinghi finally bears away to start, USA 17 is caught in irons unable to move.  She is still struggling to find steerage as Alinghi sails away just crossing behind her.  A hush of disbelief has overtaken the crowd which was just cheering at the penalty award.  Agonizingly, USA 17 finally finds way, turns slowly, gains speed and clears the line.  Alinghi is 660 meters ahead in her conditions.  The crowd is very quiet. 

USA 17 lifts two hulls, the crowd cheers.  She settles into flight, and begins like a sea hawk focused on an unsuspecting prey.  The Swiss multi-hull is not as stable as USA 17, her course more erratic.  The on- screen speed continually tabs to USA 17’s favor.  The distance between the two multihulls averaging 20 knots in this light wind is closing inexorably.  The crowd is cheering.  Now the Swiss boat is attempting a sail change but it costs her time and does not yield more speed.  The wing on USA 17 has become a deadly weapon.  One wonders what the always smirking Kiwi, Brad Butterworth, Alinghi’s tactician, is thinking now.  

Half way up the course to the weather mark, USA 17 passes Alinghi 5.  The crowd explodes.  The myth of deadly speed of the light weight cat in  5 knots of breeze evaporates.  The crowd has gone crazy.  The champagne disappears in gallons. 

February 14, 2010:   Race 2 has excitement only in the first leg.  With the course set with two long reaching legs, there will be no chance to pass no matter what kind of boat is being sailed.  Despite Alinghi finding a big favorable shift on the right side, USA 17’s  tactician John Kostechi calls a perfect tack on the port layline.  Even though Alinghi crosses USA 17, she overstands.  USA 17 leads by 28 seconds at the weather mark and never looks back.  The rest is history and celebration as the Cup heads back to the USA for the first time in 15 years.

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