It’s been an interesting, disillusioning Sunday. Watching is definitely not as fun as doing, especially when it comes to sailing on TV vs sailing on the water.
This morning I watched NBC’s Courageous documentary. It’s an exceptionally well done history (imho) of the height of the America’s Cup. Lowell North, Ted Hood and of course the dynamic duo of Ted Turner and Gary Jobson. Really great sailors, dramatic personalities and politics and supremely beautiful boats. I tried to get my boys (aged 5 and 10) to get interested. Nope.
Maybe it was speed. 12-Meters just don’t like going more than about nine or so knots. So, let’s try the new America’s Cup following not coincidentally. The Kiwis just sailed away. The one or two interactions between the boats was barely enough to hold my interest, much less the boys’.
Then I watched the the Kiwis crush Team Oracle in another two races. A couple of close interactions, but for the most part the boats were very far apart and might well have been sailing on different continents. Most of the time only the panoramic views could get both boats in the same frame. My boys weren’t the least interested.
At the risk of sounding like I park dentures in a glass next to my bed every night, here goes my thoughts on the America’s Cup.
There’s a divide among sailors about the Cup. Some think the new version is great, some long for the days of 9 knot 12-Meters and a few are somewhere in between. The divide isn’t quite as big as Democrats vs Republicans, but it’s close.
Foiling is cool. 40 mph over the water is cool. The new tactics are cool enough. The scampering from one hull to another is cool. The on-screen graphics are cool. The crashes are cool (until somebody gets hurt). The technology is cool.
The personalities are not cool compared to the days of Ted Turner, Ted Hood, Lowell North, Olin Stephens and even Dennis Conner. Not that today’s personalities are bad, they’re just held so under wraps by corporate obligations we don’t get to see them. The endless commercialization is not cool. If I see one more “Official Doo-Dad of the America’s Cup” type press release I think I’ll vomit. The wing sails are cool, and deadly efficient. The fact that few sailors are from the countries they ostensibly represent is not cool. The fact that the Northwest’s Paul Bieker is so key to the design and engineering is way cool.
And from my standpoint a few things are glaringly absent. Sail changes. Sail adjustment we can see (surely the trimmer is into the nuance of half a degree here or there, but hell if I can see it). Grace. Yes, they’re fast and in their own way beautiful, but I miss the grace of a well designed hull moving through the water, of one boat trying to lock into the wave pattern of another, of the shear power of a keelboat casting waves aside right and left as it crushes to weather.
And what’s missing from both the new and old Cups is, with some exceptions, close racing.
Today’s obliteration of Oracle was like watching grass grow, as the saying goes. OK, it was like watching grass grow fast. The time differences on these 20 minute races were less than 2 minutes, but it sure seemed a lot further. The boats were more than 1/4 mile apart most of the time.
The Cup moments that most captured the public’s attention didn’t have anything to do with speed. Who could forget Turner’s ongoing antics of 1977. There was that entire summer of ’83 when we all wondered exactly what was under Australia II, and that moment when Alan Bond’s outstretched hands looked like they alone could lift A-II out of the water for all to see. And then there was Conner’s epic comeback when Stars & Stripes blew a headsail in the Fremantle Doctor, and the crew scrambled to quickly replace it. It was something that can and does happen on raceboats frequently, and we racers all just take that in stride, but in that case the public saw it happen. I remember non-sailing friends being impressed. Not speed. It was wind, waves and crew work.
Roger Vaughan has a very well considered piece that appeared in Scuttlebutt called I don’t Need a Helmet to go Sailing.
But as that tiresome phrase goes, it is what it is.
It is a new made-for-screen sporting product and those sailors and designers and media technicians have taken this new sport to amazing places. And it’s not going back. I’m viewing this year’s Cup as I would an intriguing new sport. I’ll try to understand the tactics and be impressed by the grinders’ efforts which are remarkable. I’ll watch the wing and the trimmer very carefully. I’ve gotten to the point were I can tell what tack boats are on even if I’m not always sure whether they’re heading “upwind” or “downwind.” I’ll root for the Kiwis because, well, they deserve to get it back and that country truly respects sailing.
There’s one thing about the new Cup I really don’t like, and it’s is what Roger Vaughan was getting at: The new Cup is not the sailing I love and that I’d love to see more people doing. The Cup is not really getting that much attention from the mainstream media. Just ask your non-sailing friends if they have any idea it’s going on. And I’m afraid that even if someone gets turned on by these cool cats, they’ll be highly disappointed when they go to a sailing school or community sailing center and face a ponderous but safe sailing class boat they’ll turn away disappointed.
As a kid sailing around the harbor I could imagine my little O’Day 7/11 dinghy was Intrepid. I’m not sure today’s kid in a Bic O’pen can make the imagination leap to an AC cat. Tell me if I’m wrong.
In the meantime I’ll see if Spithill and company can come up with another epic comeback. If he does, I hope the races are close. I don’t care if they’re going at a fast walking pace.