Friday, October 11, 2013

America's Cup 34 Recap by Gary Jobson

Recently, Gary and I had the opportunity to hear Gary Jobson, ESPN broadcaster and former America's Cup skipper, give a talk about the 34th America's Cup, and we jumped at the chance. The event was hosted by the Corinthian Yacht Club, in Essington, PA. We'd heard Jobson speak before, but it had been years.

We had followed the America's Cup on TV and thrilled to watch the graphic-enhanced broadcasts of the races, held in the San Francisco Bay, within sight of Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Along with every other spectator, we were stunned to watch Oracle USA climb, one race at a time, from an 8-1 deficit, to take the cup back from Emirates New Zealand, 9-8. And, we learned so much from Jobson about what went on behind the scenes. What a night! I had forgotten what an engaging speaker he was.

First, Jobson showed some scenes from the recent Cup events. Then, he made his first observation: that, although the boats have come a long way, the sport has never really changed: No matter how rich or how experienced the team, one can never predict the outcome. Evidently, Jobson was the only journalist to accompany the race committee out on the water (pretty exciting at over 50 mph). He also had the opportunity to ride on both the challenger and the defender’s boats (although not during the races).

The race may not have changed over the years, but the technology sure did. There were five mics and seven cameras on each boat, Jobson divulged. This enabled viewers to feel what the skipper and crew were feeling. Every spray, every bump - it was like you were there. This is all new to the sport. That, and the other technical marvel - the boats themselves: catamarans 72 feet in length, with hydraulically manipulated 130-foot high "wings" (a rigid mainsail, with traditional soft jib), and carbon fiber adjustable "foils," which keep the boat aloft - yes, I mean hovering above the water; these are catamarans, mind you - and pitched at just the right angle. These babies achieve speeds of up to 48 knots (56 mph), or three times the speed of the wind. Eleven crew members struggled to keep all that power under control, and teams of up to 150 people worked behind the scenes to keep the dream alive day after day.) The races were truly amazing to watch. Listening to Jobson, I was glad we had actually made time to watch the races (either when they were broadcast, or shortly afterward when Gary recorded them, as was the case on weekdays, when they began at 4:00 p.m.).

Jobson also offered a glimpse into the history of the America's Cup and reminded us that in the beginning, it wasn't the America's Cup at all. It was a race around the Isle of Wight held by England’s Royal Yacht Squadron, and in 1851 an American yachtsman named John Cox Stevens (then Commodore of the New York Yacht Club) went over there, won the trophy (a huge silver “cup”), and brought it home. After that, the cup was renamed the America's Cup (after Stevens’ boat America) and the cup stayed in U.S. possession for about 130 years, until 1983, when Australia defeated defender Dennis Conner and the New York Yacht Club. Oh, incidentally, in 1820 Stevens built a catamaran—a precursor to today’s America’s Cup yacht design—which he named "Double Trouble" In addition, Stevens also founded the New York Yacht Club, under whose mantle he sailed when he won The Cup from the Brits. One impressive sailor.

Next, Jobson provided commentary on the 2013 races: The 40-minute time limit was "ridiculous." (He claims the number was picked arbitrarily.) That, plus the very narrow arc the wind was allowed to have in a race, and the max and min wind speeds, really limited the window of opportunity for races to be held. (These limits affected the Kiwis adversely in at least two races.) And, of course, the technology used to referee and report on the races was stunning: In addition to umpires out on the course, there were also umpires onshore, watching the races from every angle, on multiple graphic-enhanced TV screens. The two groups compared notes via headsets, and together, they decided the calls. The reasons for Oracle coming behind (remember, the score at one point was 8-1 New Zealand; they only needed one win then, and every race thereafter as Oracle crept toward their 9-8 victory) was tweaking of the foils, tweaking of the crew (the tactician was replaced early on, as was the crew member who was working the foils), and small tweaks made by the designers - an aero team from Boeing - each night.

Finally, the crowd learned what Jobson’s predictions—or at least his own wish list—for the 35th America’s Cup: (1) The price tag: The boats must be more economical to build. Billionaire Larry Ellison financed Oracle, but the Kiwis had the backing of a number of organizations as well as New Zealand’s government. There must be a cap on the spending to encourage more to participate. (2) Nationality: There were only one or two Americans on Oracle, although Emirates boasted mostly, although not all, New Zealanders. Boats should be (mostly) crewed by citizens of that country. (3) There should be defense trials. Oracle didn’t race until the finals, whereas in the past the defender participated in the trials, which gave the defender more sailing time and contenders the opportunity to see what they were up against. This practice should come back. (4) Fleet racing, rather than match racing (one on one), should be the norm. (5) Catamarans are here to stay, despite some who are longing for mono-hulls, and the “good old days.” Jobson knows what he wants; it will be interesting to see if they come to pass.

Jobson concluded the talk with plug for his new book (due in 2014) about the Barnegat Bay Sailing Association, on the occasion of their 100th anniversary, then a Q&A session that further entertained the crowd of several hundred people. Sailors of every stripe and every age were richer for attending, as Gary Jobson brought stories of the 34th America’s Cup close to home.

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