Eyewitness Account: High Drama at the America's Cup
The America’s Cup World Series Newport regatta.
Photos by Gilles Martin-Raget; Courtesy of The America's Cup.
Thursday, 28 June, 4:38 p.m., Fort Adams State Park
Inside the Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) tent, the AC45 catamaran that only hours ago was cutting through Narragansett Bay in the first match race of the America’s Cup World Series Newport regatta is a skeleton. The team works over and around it with pen knives and box cutters and a small drill to begin to repair the damage that a single capsize wrought. There’s not a minute’s rest for anyone on this team, whether their part is racing or re-building.
It’s disorienting to see the disassembled framework. On the water, these boats are fast and serious. I’ve heard them called “extreme.” At one point, I asked ETNZ Chief Operating Officer Kevin Shoebridge why the boat doesn’t have a name, like any other sailboat. He thought about it for a second, and came around to the explanation that these multi-hulled AC45s are “work boats.” From my vantage point, these boats are on the brink of becoming renegades. They seem to say, “I dare you.”
The AC45s made their America’s Cup debut with the start of the World Series in 2011, and not without some contention. But it’s just such developments as these that make the America’s Cup distinctive. New regulations are enforced at the will of the team that holds the Cup. As they say, there is no second place in this competition. The winner of the Cup takes everything, including the license to set the terms of the next competition.
The San Francisco-based ORACLE TEAM USA Spithill, defenders of the Cup, demanded AC45s, and so they were built. For the America’s Cup Finals next summer, they have called for AC72s, boats that are of similar design, only instead of hulls that are 45-feet long, their hulls are 72-feet long. Instead of reaching a height of 83 feet, the AC72s will reach to 131 feet. And the speed? Well, consider an expert’s take: speaking of the AC72 that ETNZ expects to launch in Auckland on July 21, skipper Dean Barker said to a blogger for the official website of the America’s Cup, “We’re looking forward to getting it on the water and scaring ourselves to bits.”
But for ETNZ, it’s a long way from here to there. As of Thursday afternoon, several technicians were tearing the skin off of the wing of the ETNZ boat, literally peeling it away as if it was packing tape. Indeed, the skin is made of a kind of plastic that comes off of a roll and is sealed to the vessel with heat, like shrink wrap. Another technician drilled into the carbon fiber structure wearing a white hazmat suit and mask. The webs which make up a large part of the wing structure had become waterlogged in many places, so these were removed. I saw the core of one of the discarded webs, a half-inch-thick layer (actually made of Nomex) that reminded me of the honeycombed layer of a corrugated cardboard box. The carbon fiber that lines the webs is tissue paper-thin.
Looking ahead to an all-night job of repair work, both in the structure of the boat and in the minds of the sailors, Shoebridge said that it would be his job to ensure that the team didn’t “dwell” too much on their loss.
Spectatorship and Understanding the Regatta
Though they are locked out of the remainder of match races here in Newport, ETNZ expects to return Friday (even as I write this) to the field of eight contenders for fleet races.
Let me pause here to say that I am not a sailor, nor a sports writer, and I am hardly fluent in Rhode Island maritime history. But when I saw the images of cranes lowering the sleek catamarans into Newport harbor about two weeks ago, I understood that they had been shipped from points across the globe, and that the best sailors in the world were coming to Rhode Island to race them. Feeling woefully ignorant of sailing, the America’s Cup, and the history of the Cup races in Newport, I leapt when ETNZ’s sponsor, Nespresso, invited me to be a guest on one of their chase boats for the day, and to spend part of the morning and part of the afternoon in the team tent.
Before we boarded the chase boat, Shoebridge explained that in fleet races, all eight contenders sail together on the course, and match races set contenders to compete in pairs. The first fleet race determines seeding for the match races, and the match races are won by best of three.
The course is sort of like a figure-eight, with a starting chute and an exit to the finish. There are vessels everywhere. The course is not demarcated on the water by anything other than craft. A timing boat with a checkered flag indicates the start position. Vessels with red flags scattered at the perimeter of the course keep spectator craft at bay. The Coast Guard sweeps along the perimeter, too, alerting spectator vessels when they are inching past the red-flags.
On the course proper, an official America’s Cup T.V. boat shoots up and down the course to get the best angles. It looks like a misfit bug. Designed not to make any wake, it has two hulls much like the AC45s, atop of which sits a solid platform, and an outboard motor is attached to each hull. Official mark boats indicate where the contenders tack at the top of the course and jibe at the bottom of the course. From the deck of the Gansett, the chase boat that Nespresso chartered in Newport, I got breathless every time one of the AC45s negotiated around the mark boat hulls. They carved daredevil turns, or at least what appeared to be so. Realistically, even in the face of potential crisis, even in split-second decisions, these elite sailors calculate every maneuver.
The new broadcast technology that will bring the America’s Cup to NBC viewers this Sunday is designed similar to the technology long used in football broadcasts. It generates digital enhancements to guide viewers far from shore. On television, digital lines will mark the perimeter of the course, and false turbulence in the water will be applied digitally to the sterns of each AC45, in order to indicate direction and speed. Strategic computer-generated enhancements of this kind are now commonly known as “augmented reality.” On the front page of Thursday’s Providence Journal, an exploration into the particulars of the broadcast technology, called LiveLine, prompted the writer to ask “With production values this good, why would someone want to watch the race in person?”
In truth, it is completely disorienting to see an America’s Cup race in person if you don’t know how it works. But I had the benefit of binoculars, a generous and experienced guide, and one of the best possible vantage points. Then again, will some measure of context and scale be lost on television viewers who are far from the pounding of water against hull, far from the deck of a craft where a gust rips the hat right off of your head? Absolutely. I watched countless YouTube videos in anticipation of my day at sea. Some had great soundtracks, and I was riveted. Yet I can say with certainty, having been there, that there is a difference.
Emirates Team New Zealand
Stéphane Detaille is glad for the broadcast technology because it will build interest and introduce a new audience to this elite sport. Broadcast technology, he says, will give an audience of non-sailors the capacity to read what’s happening on the water. The manager in charge of international sponsoring, events and publishing for Nespresso, Stéphane was a most trusted, knowledgeable, and generous guide on the sponsor’s chase boat.
Before he joined Nespresso, Stéphane was working on behalf of the America’s Cup. He observed first-hand the most tense moments in ETNZ’s impressive history. While the team won the America’s Cup in 1995, and defended it successfully in 2000, it lost the Cup to the Swiss team, Alinghi, in 2003. Stéphane was in Valencia, Spain in 2007, watching the deciding match race between challenger ETNZ and defender Alinghi when ETNZ finished a mere second shy of Alinghi.
ETNZ started this series in the lead, one point ahead of the defender, at the beginning of the year, but during the spring regattas in Italy, the team slipped to second place, four points behind ORACLE TEAM USA Spithill. Earlier this week, it didn’t help them get their bearings any, when two sailors out of a crew of five suffered injuries (one concussion and a dislocated shoulder) that prohibit them from returning to the races this week.
Then yesterday, there was the capsize. It happened during the first match race of the day. ETNZ was maneuvering around the top mark when a sudden gust of wind capsized the boat. “It was quite strange,” Shoebridge said later. “The wind wasn’t blowing that hard.”
There were shouts from the deck of the Gansett when it happened. Not missing a beat, Stéphane pointed, his arm at full extension, “That is the first time that has happened!” It was the one moment during the entire day that Stéphane seemed to allow a chord of nervous energy to resonate through him as he alternately paced the deck and charged up the stairs to get a better view.
For all that Stéphane was introduced to me as a person who is on the corporate team of the global sponsor, you would think that half of his waking hours were spent on the boat with the ETNZ sailors or embedded in the team meetings with the shore crew. Indeed, he was right about the precedent that ETNZ had set. The 2011–2012 America’s Cup World Series is comprised of six distinct regattas in six different cities (Cascais, Portugal; Plymouth, UK; San Diego, USA; Naples, Italy; Venice, Italy; Newport, USA), each of which consists of a series of fleet and match races. And since the first races of the series in August 2011, every team had capsized at least once, except for ETNZ.
At first, there was some hope that the team might be able to get back into the race, but the wing extension, the uppermost portion of the boat, was still underwater a half-hour later. The official team chase boat, which had crew members including Shoebridge aboard, made multiple attempts at hauling the boat upright. From the Gansett, we could see the crew at a distance crawling all over the hull, preparing the boat to be righted. But the line snapped.
They made countless more attempts. The crew was working hard at what, with every passing minute, appeared to be a lost cause. At one point, it looked as if the chase boat was going to tow the AC45 to shore on its side, but slowly, slowly, as they motored toward shore, inch by inch, the wing appeared to be surfacing. And then it did. Upright! But only for a second. The momentum and the wind sprung the hulls back up and over. They pointed skyward for an instant and bobbed precariously before they came smashing back down, once again with the wing underwater. The crew went back to work.
Hours passed before the team finally righted the boat, before it finally became apparent to all that part of the wing had been torn off completely. They sailed it back to shore, nevertheless, promptly dismantled it, and began making repairs.
There’s no question, that even having suffered a major disappointment on Thursday, the Emirates Team New Zealand, their work ethic, their dedication, their physical endurance and their poise under pressure was one of the most inspiring things that I’ve seen.
Shoebridge had just been telling me before the start of the races on Thursday about what he thinks makes ETNZ distinctive. In a nutshell: community, culture and diversity. The entire team works and trains out of a single headquarters in Auckland, he said, but they recruit the best from all over the world. And the 105-member team draws on the talent of every individual playing multiple roles.
Outside of the ETNZ tent at the end of the day Thursday, as the sailing crew worked alongside the shore crew to repair well into the early hours of the morning, Shoebridge said, “That’s exactly what you’re seeing in there now.”