Saturday, June 23, 2007

America's Cup

America’s Cup racing started today. There’s not much that will get me out of the sack at 5:30AM, but that does.

The Swiss are up 1-0 over the Kiwis. I’m cheering for New Zealand for several reasons. I have a niece living (for a couple of years) in New Zealand with her husband and they are two of my favorite people. I’m a bit peeved with the Swiss for making the challenge a four-year delay: three years is traditional, and the Swiss announced within days of winning the cup that they would not entertain a challenge for four years. Finally, I don’t want the next America’s Cup to be in the Mediterranean because the wind there sucks.

The announcers keep talking about “perfect conditions” with 10-13 knot winds, but don’t you believe it – that is what a true sailor would call “light airs” and it is not the best test of a sailing crew. Nor does it make for the most exciting racing from a spectator standpoint.

Still, it keeps me watching. These are the best sailors in the world, the ultimate in sailboats, and the America’s Cup is the pinnacle of sailboat racing. These two competitors look very closely matched to me and today’s race was close, so we may be in for some fun.

Conventional wisdom is that the Swiss have an edge in boat speed and the Kiwis might be a bit better at handling their boat. The commentators are so far not disputing that, but today’s race didn’t seem to me to support the theory. On the first beat to windward the Swiss definitely increased their lead during the tacking duel and I could not tell if that was due to sail handling or if their boat just recovered speed better after the turn. Sail handling looked pretty much flawless by both teams, so I would guess it was the latter, but on the second beat the boats had a bit of separation and did some “drag racing” during which the Kiwis gained on the Swiss.

Sometimes I think the commentators are in some kind of world of their own and are not watching the same race I am or, perhaps, that they are just more interested in hyping the race than they are in describing what is actually happening on the water. I mean, they are getting all out of breath and the boats are moving at the breakneck speed of nine knots (about 12 miles per hour).

At one point the picture showed a crewman who had the visor of his ballcap cut down to a nub and the commentator said that he had cut it down to reduce wind resistance. Give me a break. These boats weigh 20,000 pounds and have thousands of square feet of sail area: the visor of a ball cap is going to slow that down? The man was a sail trimmer: I suspect he had cut the visor off to make it easier to look up at the sail.

Back to my comment about the best sailors in the world. Not quite. The best sailor in the world is Dennis Conner. Yes, he is the only American ever to lose the America’s Cup and, yes, he did so twice. He also won it multiple times, twice with a boat that was clearly inferior to the one that he beat. The Cup today is an international challenge of incredible scope, and it is what it is because of Dennis Conner. He is, without question, the greatest sailor ever to hold the helm of an America’s Cup sailboat and his departure from the sport is without doubt a great part of the reason this country does not have a boat in this year’s match.

We miss you, Dennis.

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