America’s Cup revisited

The Emirates Team New Zealand yacht passing Dr...
The Emirates Team New Zealand yacht passing Drake’s Island, at the start of their run during the America’s Cup AC500 speed trial on 2011-09-11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I started thinking about this week’s posting and had settled on writing about the role that supporters play in the context of sports when I suddenly realised that I’d written about this subject before. After pondering for a bit, I decided to write instead about the Americas Cup, which I have also written about earlier. For those who don’t know, this yacht competition, sailed in the thrilling AC72 yachts, was won 9-8 by Oracle Team USA, who made an amazing comeback from 8-1 down.

I think that it is fair to say that New Zealanders expected their team to win from 8-1 in the lead as they only needed to win one race to win the regatta and the cup. It is also fair to say that almost everyone in the country both knew about and supported Emirates Team New Zealand, to the extent that the whole country almost came to a standstill at 8am which is when the racing started, New Zealand time. I can definitely state that the traffic on the motorway as I drove to work at 8am was much lighter than usual. Many people in Auckland decided to make their way to Shed 10 on the waterfront where the matches were shown on giant TV screens.

Go @EmiratesTeamNZ. #americascup
Go @EmiratesTeamNZ. #americascup (Photo credit: KLIM ANDREEV)

When the score was 8-1 the supporters were ecstatic, expecting a quick finish to the regatta, but as the Oracle Team USA yacht continued to win, the feelings changed first to worry then to despair, however I don’t think that many if any failed to hang on until the bitter end.

Emirates Team New Zealand
Emirates Team New Zealand racing


Contrast this to the situation in the US where most people didn’t even know that there was a yacht race on!

There is no doubt that Oracle Team New Zealand appreciated the support from the supporters in New Zealand and for that matter in the US, and acknowledged the continuing support in defeat. They would have also felt that they were representing New Zealand and would have felt a huge responsibility as a result. The looks on the faces of the team members after the final race would have reflected their own personal disappointment and the disappointment for having let their supporters down.

Watching the racing
Watching the racing

Explanations for the extraordinary comeback by Oracle Team USA are naturally speculative. It is probably down to a number of factors, but was likely to stem firstly from the alterations that Oracle Team USA made to their yacht during the regatta, making it faster and more manoeuverable and secondly from better boat handling learnt during the regatta, not least of all from Emirates Team New Zealand.

Dean Barker
Dean Barker

Reactions in the US to the win are interesting. The Slate expounds at length on the fact that Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle has expended multi-millions of dollars on the America’s Cup, that holder of the cup can pretty much determine the rules of the regatta and that the yachts are so expensive. They touched on the fact that the Oracle Team USA yacht had only one American on board, the team being predominately from New Zealand and Australia, with the only other American starting the regatta on the boat being kicked off in favour of Ben Ainslie, who is British. It almost seems that the Slate was on the side of Emirates Team New Zealand!

Ben Ainslie
Ben Ainslie

The New York Times is more restrained, merely pointing out the huge input of cash that Larry Ellison has injected into Oracle Team USA, and commenting on the fact that yachting is a niche sport in the US but that 1 million out of 4 and a half million in New Zealand were watching the cup. (I actually think that it was much higher than a mere one million!). So, no denigration of Oracle Team USA, but no real congratulations either.

An interesting thing about all the reporting of the 2013 America’s Cup is that the American yacht has been almost universally been referred to as “Oracle” while the other yacht has generally been referred to as “Team New Zealand”, which says a lot about the general perception of who was actually racing for the America’s Cup. I believe that the Oracle Team USA yacht does not have a name beyond “17” but the Emirates Team New Zealand yacht is named “Aotearoa”, which caused American commentators some problems.

Larry Ellison on stage.
Larry Ellison on stage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The challenger of record for the next America’s Cup regatta is likely to be an Australian yacht club, which brings back memories of the other remarkable comeback in the America’s Cup history, when the Australian team came back from 3-1 down to win 4-3 and end the longest winning run in sport, but nothing is likely to top the sheer spectacle of the wonderful AC72 yachts flying on foils in the 2013 America’s Cup regatta using techniques developed and perfected by Emirates Team New Zealand and adopted with such success by Oracle Team USA.

Flying on foils
Flying on foils

There has been no criticism or vilification of Oracle Team USA by New Zealanders or the New Zealand press so far as I know, although the Oracle Team USA team boss, Russell Coutts, has come in for a little criticism, simply because Coutts is a New Zealander. There is talk, though, that Coutts may return to Team New Zealand, if Team New Zealand in fact survives. This might be an issue since Team New Zealand do not have a billionaire backer and mounting an America’s Cup campaign takes a mountain of money.

Russell Coutts
Russell Coutts

Ben Ainslie, the British tactician on board Oracle Team USA in the later races has mentioned that he would see a British challenge for the America’s Cup. It would certainly be fitting if a British challenge were to prevail and finally take home the America’s Cup. Although it officially belongs to the New York Yacht Club I believe, it was originally awarded by the Royal Yacht Squadron (Based on the Isle of Wight in England) to the yacht America in the very first race for the cup.

The Yacht America
The Yacht America

The America’s Cup

There’s a competition going on in San Francisco to decide the winner of the America’s Cup. Those people who do not have an interest in yachting may not have heard of it, but it is the Superbowl of the yachting world. Currently it is being fought out between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand. The New Zealand team currently lead 6 wins to 1. [Update: The score is now 6 – 2.]

For spectators on the shore yacht racing normally happens a long way off and with few visual clues as to what is happening and it is often next to impossible to tell who is leading and even who won the race. The yachts are visible as small white dots although the deployment of a spinnaker will swell the dots and may introduce a bit of colour, but the to-ing and fro-ing of the yachts is still difficult to decipher.

The America’s Cup is different in that technology has come to the spectators’ assistance. A view can be shown on television of the yachts as seen from a helicopter or motorboat shadowing the yachts, but it will still not be obvious who is leading, since when going upwind the yachts travel at a significant angle to their target course. At each side of the course the yachts must change direction, a procedure known as a ‘tack’. If both yachts are travelling on parallel courses it is possible for the trailing boat to appear to be leading.

So to help spectators the live view is overlaid with graphics which show each yacht’s distance from the mark (the target for this leg) or from the finish line if the leg is the last one. The graphics also show the boundaries of the course if the yachts are approaching them. The distance between the lines for the two yachts shown who is in the lead and by how much.

A graphic from an earlier America’s Cup Regatta race featuring the smaller AC45 yachts.

The graphics also show the yacht speeds though I’m not sure if that is the speed towards the mark or finish line or merely the straight line speed. Another thing that the graphics can show is any ‘bad air’ that the leading yacht is casting over the trailing yacht. The leading yacht’s sail disturbs the the air as it flows over it, and this disturbed air is less efficient at providing the trailing yacht with energy and so it tends to travel a little slower. The leading yacht is said to cover the trailing yacht and the trailing yacht will endeavour to escape the cover.

The most interesting times in a yacht race are when the vessels are rounding a mark. The graphics for this are a circle round the mark and a series of dots or blobs representing the yacht’s course, as if the yacht were dropping a bucket of dye every second. There is also a countdown clock indicating the number of seconds that one yacht is behind the other.

The two finalists
The two finalists

So there’s plenty of information about the races and it makes for fascinating viewing. (There are some people who still don’t get it and who watch it for 5 minute or so and then go and do something else, but then again, Formula 1 leaves me yawning). The course in San Francisco is very close to the shore and this does allow spectators a good view of the yachts, though I suspect that most of them will be keeping up to date via cellphones. There’s an app for it!

Race six, won by Emirates Team New Zealand
The huge number of on course spectators can be seen in the bacground

[Update: I just watched latest race. Oracle Team USA won this after a near capsize by Emirates Team New Zealand.]

The class of yacht being used in the America’s Cup in San Francisco is designated as AC72. These are huge catamarans (dual-hulled yachts) with fixed sails and full of the latest technology, computers and hydraulics. A failed battery cost Emirates Team New Zealand one race!

Oracle Team USA
Oracle Team USA (boat #2)

The yachts are spectacular in action as they rise up out of the water on hydrofoils, which reduces hull drag to nothing and allows the yachts to reach speeds of up to 50mph (44 knots). This does not come without its dangers and several of the yachts have dipped their bows into the water leading to at least two incidents where yachts have “pole-pitched” and tipped over in one case killing one of the crew. In both cases the yachts were severely damaged. Emirates Team New Zealand dropped their bows into the water in one case  but appeared in no danger of flipping over. Oracle Team USA were one of the teams whose yacht was almost destroyed  in an incident.

Oracle Team USA yacht capsizes

The yachts are filled with technology and are very technical to race, apparently, and have proved very popular in San Francisco with huge crowds turning out to watch action. Millions more are of course glued to their TV screens and cellphones. And this, below, is what it is all about.

English: The America's Cup
English: The America’s Cup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)