Living in San Francisco and sailing on San Francisco Bay I took a sidelong view of the America’s Cup. It’s not my first rodeo. I happened to be in San Diego in 1992, and New Zealand in 2003, where I checked out some of the action on the water since I happened to be there with a boat. We had a close encounter in San Diego, and I watched the dismasting of the Kiwi boat in 2003, but I’m the first to say that sailing isn’t much of a spectator sport.
Leading up to this Cup everyone assumed that because I was a sailor I was all aflutter about it. I explained what watching sailboat racing was like: I’d move my two hands, emulating sails, at oblique angles, very slowly.
I will now eat my words. It’s been gripping. The TV coverage (Thanks Stan Honey) is probably better than what I’ve seen on the water, but the little glimpses and close encounters I’ve had on the water bring a visceral reality to what I watch on TV.
Out on the water we’ve been watching it take shape for months. The Prada boat, for example, was definitely the coolest looking, but had something wrong with it. Foiling is pretty skittish in the best of times, but the Prada boat sort of crabbed along when it foiled, and this looked wrong:
Emirates New Zealand always looked strong, but so did Oracle.
On one training day I happened to be out with some friends aboard Condesa when several of the boats were out practicing. You can’t ever really plan to get near one, because they’re moving at 40 knots, for God’s sake. We were passing the windward gate, the one near the Golden Gate Bridge, when the New Zealand boat came charging our way. They came right at us at 40 knots, looking very sketchy and out-of-control on their foils, and for a moment I thought we were going to make the evening news. NZ missed us by thirty yards and rounded the gate, of course, but they came close enough not just to see, but to hear them: a crazy high-pitched hum, squealing, grunting, the sounds of high-tech materials being stretched and strained.
They are amazing machines to see up close, and the speeds they attain regularly would have been record-breakers for much of my lifetime. Two sailboats closing at a speed of 80 knots: No wonder they wear helmets and body armor.
This past weekend was my first time out on my boat since the Cup itself started.
For all the traffic on the water and potential for bumper boats, everyone was very courteous. Still, a little tense for the helmsman. The camera helicopters flew onto the course in formation, did a little pirouette, then flew into position. Wow, this was serious.
America’s Cup beginner’s luck: We happened to be right there – probably the best location of all the punter spectator boats – for the NZ near-capsize. We sailed to Petaluma for the night, then came back for Race 2 on Sunday.
Today I came home and told my wife, “If you know what happened in today’s racing, don’t tell me!” I’d had to work, so I didn’t see anything but the helicopters flying overhead. As it turned out I missed nothing because of the postponement for the wind limit, but I guess this means I’m a sports fan.
Now here we sit on the eve of the Cup’s key moment: If NZ wins both races tomorrow, that’s that. But Oracle has been tweaking their boat, winning some races fair and square, and making them work for it. A major comeback isn’t out of the question.
One camps says it’s all too expensive and we’ll never see anything like this again. Another says we’ve seen the future and there’s no going back. I’ll have to side with the latter camp if the America’s Cup is going to engage the general public. This is San Francisco, and it howls pretty much every day: Watching these same boats sail in San Diego would be…boooooring.