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How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love (or at Least Accept) the America's Cup

Melissa Griffin; additional reporting by Christopher Caen | July 1, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

Will it be a blockbuster or a boondoggle—or both? Until the America’s Cup races begin on July 5—or, more critically, until the economic haul from the two-and-a-half-month competition is tabulated—nobody will know the answer for certain. What we can say with confidence is that the summer of 2013 will be a turning point, for better or worse, both for the America’s Cup and for the city that’s hosting it. As San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee goes about the thankless task of trying to remake the city’s long-neglected shoreline, his administration has thrown in its lot with a group of investors, led by Oracle honcho Larry Ellison, who are attempting an even more brazen stunt: Turning a poorly understood, irregularly convened, tycoon-infested sporting event into a singular (and, hopefully, popular) televised spectacle. This may turn out to be an inspired idea or a disaster of super-yacht proportions—but no matter what, it’ll be damn interesting to watch.

To understand what’s truly at stake for both the organizers and the city, it helps to know a little more about how we got here. In modern history, the race has resembled Brigadoon, the magical place that materializes once every eon and then disappears again. In an arrangement peculiar to the competition, the winner (aka the defender) chooses the rules of engagement and the time and place of the next Cup. Consequently, since 1983, America’s Cup races have popped up in five cities and four countries and have been held anywhere from three to five years apart. Because Ellison’s Oracle Team USA won the last competition (in 2010), Ellison alone got to select this year’s venue and, more controversially, the type of boat (the steroidal, untested AC72) that would be competing.

Even among professional sailors, this winners-choice system can rankle— as it clearly did in the lead-up to this year’s Cup, when only three teams stepped up to challenge Ellison. It’s easy to see why other teams (most Cups include 7 to 10 challengers) stayed away. It’s as if, after winning the World Series last year, the San Francisco Giants got to set the schedule and pick the playing equipment for the rest of Major League Baseball—and not only did they demand that all other teams upgrade to multimillion-dollar titanium bats, but they also got to enjoy a guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. What right minded rival would sign up for that?

Further muddying the waters is the inherent fan-unfriendliness of international sailing. For one, the names of the teams change with each Cup depending on their sponsors (imagine rooting for the “San Francisco Giants” in one World Series and the “Ghirardelli Chocolates” in the next). The races have also traditionally taken place far from shore, on a course with boundaries that are impossible to discern. Also confusing is the fact that while this year’s Cup involves four boats representing sovereign nations—the United States, New Zealand, Sweden, and Italy—many of the sailors hail from countries other than those for whom they’re competing. Oracle Team USA, for instance, is skippered by an Australian and manned by a motley crew of Aussies, Kiwis, Dutchmen, and a Brit. All of the above creates the perfect recipe for a big, steaming batch of “Who the hell cares?” from the nonsailing set.

And yet, it’s hard not to appreciate the vessels themselves. In a world of irony, ambiguity, clutter, and fear, these colossal insects represent nothing less than the cold, elegant essence of physics. Their purpose is poetically simple: to conquer the wind-lashed, current-torn bay—and to thrash each other. The AC72 catamarans that Ellison demanded are huge, two feet longer than the average BART car. Their H-shaped structure has two advantages: It allows for maximum speed by reducing contact with the water, and it’s strong enough to hold up two sails, one of them longer than the wing of a Boeing 747.

That mainsail—a rigid, solid piece of carbon fiber and Mylar—is so large that a crane is required to lift it upright. Because it isn’t fabric, the crew can’t drop it like a regular sail and stop the propulsion it creates. Once the mainsail and the jib are in place, the boat is completely at the mercy of the wind, reaching speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. “These boats are alive,” said Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill. “It’s like trying to park a car with the accelerator on, and it’s exhausting. It’s a turbo—it’s like a wild animal in a cage.

Spithill said this in late April, two and a half weeks before the wild beast reminded us all of what kind of damage it can do. On May 9, Swedish syndicate Artemis Racing’s boat, which has been rebuilt at least three times, capsized and killed English crewman Andrew “Bart” Simpson, who was trapped underwater for 10 minutes while his teammates struggled in vain to free him. The incident has led to massive recriminations for the Cup’s organizers, a call to revamp safety protocols, and citywide hand-wringing about the gladiatorial nature of it all. The main problem, many now realize, is that the 72s are simply too fast for their own good.

Even before the crash, Oracle Team USA CEO Russell Coutts was quite candid about his regret over having chosen to race 72s rather than the usual 45-foot-long boats. “I think one of the big assumptions that was wrong—and I was a big part of this assumption—is that I thought if we made the boats too small, it just wouldn’t be viewed as grand enough for the America’s Cup,” he said. As Coutts and Spithill both admitted prior to Simpson’s death, the preliminary Cup races in the 45-foot catamarans were just as exciting for the fans. If Oracle wins this year’s Cup, they said, neither would insist on such large boats again. Bigger and badder, it turns out, isn’t necessarily better.

Page two: Sportsmanship in shambles

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Whatever semblance of sportsmanship existed in the immediate aftermath of the Artemis tragedy, with all four teams attending a joint memorial for Simpson on the Bay, it went to pieces shortly thereafter. Eight days after the crash, the owner of the Prada-sponsored Italian team, Patrizio Bertelli, demanded lower maximum wind speeds and went so far as to accuse Oracle of laying the groundwork for a virtual slaughter. “They scheduled the challenger selection trials, the Louis Vuitton Cup, from July to August, in a period when the San Francisco Bay is very windy,” he told VSail.info. “The America’s Cup finals, on the other hand, are in September, when there is on average 15 knots. They are there, watching us slaughtering ourselves, smashing everything, and wait.”

Coutts has a different, if not exactly diplomatic, explanation for the crash: “The Artemis boat was a dog.” After the accident, a review committee made 37 safety recommendations, including reducing the maximum wind speed in which races can take place from 33 to 23 knots. As of press time, the Artemis team had not decided whether to participate in the race at all, and organizers were awaiting the Coast Guard’s review of the proposed safety measures.

Meanwhile, the Emirates Team New Zealand rules adviser, Russell Green, was frustrated by talk of changing the wind rules and implied that the Italian and Swedish teams were using the tragedy to demand more favorable conditions. He took to the Emirates Team New Zealand blog and wrote, “It is daunting to arrive at the venue after years of planning to find the goalposts moving so late in the campaign, long after decisions have been made based on the anticipated windy conditions in San Francisco.”

All this public squabbling prompted Jane Sullivan, America’s Cup communications director in the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, to throw up her hands. “This Cup was supposed to be different, more transparent, and attract a whole different type of viewer,” she lamented. “Now we’re back to billionaires making up rules.”

I asked Coutts whether all this bodes ill for the future of elite sailing in the United States. After all, Ellison and friends aren’t content with throwing a one-time yacht party on the bay—they dream of a Formula 1–style league with a stable circuit of races, recognizable teams, and marketable stars. But can the current slate of egomaniacal richdude boat owners get on board with a long-term plan to democratize the Cup? “I’m not confident that this group of owners can cooperate,” Coutts said. “There is lots of history and baggage carried over from past events.”

But Harvey Schiller, former executive director of the United States Olympic Committee and vice chair of the America’s Cup 2013 advisory board, brushed off the owners’ incendiary comments as mere competitive theatrics. “Once they see the excitement around what we’re trying to do,” he said, “they will want to be a part of [a future] competition.” Besides, he added, “I’ve worked with George Steinbrenner and Ted Turner. I think I can work with this group.”


Page three: San Francisco bay is ready for its close up

Read More America's Cup

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America's Cup Magnate or James Bond Villain?
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An Abbreviated History of Cheats
Pier vs. Couch

The Fair-Weather Fan's Racing Calendar
Will Larry Ellison Actually Be Sailing?

Assuming that the Cup does become the scintillating, Bud Lite–enhanced sporting drama that its backers hope it will be, what would a modern global sailing league look like? Schiller admitted that he’s not a sailing guy per se, but as a former baseball and basketball executive, he knows that a successful league requires two things: “something that leads to a championship” and “local interest.” In other words, it needs a playoff system that makes intuitive sense, along with teams that cities, or countries, or, at the very least, corporate sponsors (à la NASCAR) can get fired up about. “The plan is to identify franchises in the nations,” Schiller said, “and the event would move between venues around the world.” Right now, he added, there is enough interest for 10 America’s Cup franchises, and there are plans to roll out the new league in spring 2014.

The slim frame of the 72s, covered in sponsor logos and manned by sexy aquamen in crash helmets, provides a hint as to the future of the new Fast & Furious–style sailing. Bertelli describes the shift in typically Italian terms: “We have gone from a romantic America’s Cup to an extreme one.” In fact, asked why the Oracle boat has no name—just a number 17 in a circle—Coutts explained, “We wanted it to look like a race car."

The biggest challenge for the proposed league, according to Schiller, is that “in a competitive environment for televised sports, we have to prove that this can draw viewers.” Usually the race is televised on a cable network, but this year, for the first time since 1992, a major network (NBC) is televising the Cup—and Ellison has invested heavily in making the broadcasts work.

This is where the San Francisco Bay gets ready for its close-up. With its treacherous winds and currents, cinematic landscapes, and deep water near the shore, the bay makes an ideal stage for this new brand of reality television. Even Bertelli, Mr. Prada himself, is willing to admit, “The city itself is very beautiful, spectacular with the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and all the remaining sights.” Coutts added that the region’s airports, hotels, and tourist infrastructure make it an ideal location for repeat races over the years. Basically, what Indianapolis or Daytona or Monaco is to car racing, San Francisco could be to boats. “The environment here is perfect,” said Schiller. “San Francisco is a water city.”

But the question remains: Are we a waterfront development city?

“The cool thing about San Francisco is the waterfront, and one of the sad things is the waterfront,” said Spithill. “It is such a crying shame, because it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and you have these iconic bridges, and then you look at these piers, and it’s like, ‘God, how can you do this?’”

How, indeed? San Francisco’s history is littered with failed attempts to build structures on the waterfront. Time after time, overly ambitious plans have been put forth, only to be met by community backlash and increasingly restrictive laws. In 1968, the state turned control of the waterfront, from the Hyde Street Pier all the way to India Basin, over to the city, creating a public trust governed by the Port Commission. Almost immediately, the commission proposed the construction of a 50-story building between the Ferry Building and the Bay Bridge, causing such a panic that the city’s Planning Commission imposed a 40-foot height restriction north of the Ferry Building.

In the ’80s, plans to build condominiums at Pier 45 and a health club at Seawall Lot 321 were deemed not in the public interest, and a plan to allow office use at Piers 1 and 3 was scrapped for not being “water oriented.” A 1990 plan to build a “Sailing Center” and hotel at Piers 24 and 26 prompted voters to pass Proposition H, which created a series of restrictions and requirements with which all developers must comply. Subsequent attempts at development, like a cruise terminal at Piers 30–32 and recreational and retail space at Piers 27–31, were doomed by the combination of costs to retrofit and repair the now-dilapidated piers, limits on the use of the land, and demands for explicit public benefit.

In recent years, though, voters have approved bond measures that have delivered millions to the waterfront. A 2005 state law allows the port to keep some of its tax revenue, which theoretically means that the port is less dependent on extracting concessions from developers and more able to control its own fate by partnering on projects. But even with a kinder, gentler, more moneyed Port Commission, the waterfront remains subject to stringent restrictions. More broadly, it stands as a crucible, sacred ground for local activists, and a source of endless consternation for event organizers.

I asked Coutts, a New Zealander newly educated in San Francisco’s schizophrenic relationship with its shoreline, about his experience getting the Cup approved here. “It has not been easy,” he admitted. “I don’t have any problem with people taking time to look at the environmental impacts and such. However, it seems that certain factions are being obstructionist for the sake of being obstructionist.”

Page four: Do San Franciscans care?

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Will Larry Ellison Actually Be Sailing?

The America’s Cup is the first large event overseen by the port in its new era of self-sufficiency, and already the Mayor’s Office has learned from the experience. “The Cup forced us to look at transportation, sustainability, and public access to the area,” said Sullivan. With proposals in the works to build a massive residential and office facility at Mission Rock south of AT&T Park, a commercial and biotech complex at Pier 70, and, of course, the Golden State Warriors arena at Piers 30–32, the Cup preparations, Sullivan said, “gave us a head start for those other projects.”

As for why San Franciscans should care about the actual competition, that’s a more complicated question. When I asked Sean Randolph, the president of the influential Bay Area Council Economic Institute, which team locals should be rooting for, he stated unambiguously that we should support Oracle. “If they win,” he said, “the race will stay here, and we can continue to build out our sailing facilities and market ourselves as a host to races.” In fact, according to Sullivan, if Oracle wins, the city and the team are obligated to negotiate for the next America’s Cup. Of course, there’s a big difference between being required to negotiate and actually doing so in earnest. What passes for “prodevelopment” in maritime San Francisco may not be enough to convince an undoubtedly chagrined Larry Ellison, who has dropped a reported $100 to $200 million on this event, to return. When I asked Schiller to what extent San Francisco will be part of the future of the America’s Cup, he replied, “That depends on the public’s reaction.”

For Mayor Lee and members of the so-called city family who have thrown their weight behind Ellison, a successful America’s Cup means more than just publicity in the form of those gorgeous, sweeping camera shots of the Bridge and the Bay. It means a windfall of hotel and sales taxes that can insulate the city from state and federal cutbacks. It means demonstrating to the world that San Francisco can host a major international sporting event—a mini-mini-Olympics, if you will. And more than that, it means perhaps changing San Franciscans’ attitudes about what is possible on their waterfront.

Each in its own way, the Cup and the city are entering delicate negotiations—no longer with one another, but with history. Both entities are striving to be progressive, techforward, accessible, and egalitarian. Evidence that either has pushed too far, whether it be another boat catastrophe or an economic one, will be the stuff of a backlash that could paralyze progress for years to come. On the other hand, if both can pull it off, San Francisco will have a whole new sport—and a dazzling shoreline—to call its own.

Read More America's Cup

How To Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the America's Cup
The Year in Fail
America's Cup Magnate or James Bond Villain?
A Field Guide to Fans
Ask a Bookie

An Abbreviated History of Cheats
Pier vs. Couch

The Fair-Weather Fan's Racing Calendar
Will Larry Ellison Actually Be Sailing?

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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Follow Melissa Griffin @SFEX_Griffin



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