Monday, April 16, 2007

And your America's Cup Update follows!

Thought cricket would be the only esoteric semi-sport I'd spend my words on? Wrong, bitch.

Like last year, this place was World Cup central in June. This year, my attention will be trained on Valencia.

First, let me take you back... Personally, I feel a close connection to the America's Cup. When I was a mere 3 months old, my mother and father took me in a 22-foot Catalina with a yellow hull to Newport, Rhode Island, where I was the youngest member of the spectator fleet, in the smallest boat in the spectator fleet. That year, Ted Turner skippered Courageous to a win (and some 22 years later, Ted Turner was the commencement speaker at my college graduation - kizmet). In 1995, I spent Spring Break traveling to a family wedding, but we took a side trip to San Diego to see some of the preliminary races. I think we saw the women's boat, Mighty Mary, get whipped by someone else. That May, on a rather memorable night, I watched team New Zealand become only the second boat not under an American flag to win the cup. For the first time, I shared a beer with my Dad - purchased earlier in expectation of the clinching Kiwi victory, it was a Steinlager. I've actually got a lot of good memories following America's Cup yachting.

But that's all lame backstory. The main thing is that, as a sport, it's incredibly interesting to me. Once you have some rudimentary knowledge of strategy, I think yachting is fascinating to watch. And for someone who has the sea in his bloodline but lives in a landlocked city, the scenery is nice too.

Today was supposed to be the first day of the first round robin of the Louis Vuitton Cup. For the uninitiated, the Louis Vuitton Cup is the format by which the challenger nations determine which one of the various challenging syndicates will face Alinghi, the Swiss boat that defeated New Zealand in 2003. There are 11 challenger syndicates from 9 nations (3 are Italian). (Aside: as a formal matter, only the sponsoring yacht club is particularly from that certain nation; boats are manufactured with parts from all over the world, and crews and afterguards are typically international - for example, the American syndicate, BMW Oracle Racing, has a skipper from New Zealand (Chris Dickson), while the defender of the Cup, Alinghi, has a New Zealander skipper (Brad Butterworth) who frequently gives the helm to an American (Ed Baird).

From what I've been able to see, Valencia has set things up quite well to host the Cup. The port and canal where the syndicates are set up seems state-of-the-art and incredibly fan-friendly. The backdrop for racing is beautiful as well, with distant hills beyond the city. That said, I'm pulling big time for this to be a one-time setting. I honestly think that the best thing for yachting in general is for the USA to win back the cup and bring it to San Francisco, the home yacht club of BMW Oracle Racing. Potentially, the America's Cup could be staged in San Francisco Bay - basically a stadium setting. San Francisco would be the perfect spot for the event. And I would be there.

But about the current one...

So far there have been preliminary acts, plenty of fleet races that were pretty much jockeying for position and some bonus points that can help out in the current round. Alinghi had been involved in these races, but now they're off on their own, speed testing against themselves.

The 13th Act, which ended last week, was the last time before the America's Cup finals that we'll see Alinghi against the challengers. Alinghi dominated in these fleet races, and some think that none of the challengers has much of a chance of wrenching away the Cup. I'm not so sure. The point system of the Louis Vuitton Cup made it so that there was a limited benefit for beating Alinghi, but a significant drawback for losing to other challenger boats in each fleet race (basically, Alinghi's points are taken out of the equation). The effect of the points system was that every boat had little incentive to cover Alinghi, if they ever had a choice of two opponents to cover. Alinghi had free space and freedom to chase wind shifts without a shadow - which can be a huge advantage. In a match race setting, I don't know if it's assured that Alinghi is definitely faster than any of the challengers. For example, in a couple of the races BMW looked every bit as fast as Alinghi (race 1 and race 3 until the broken spinnaker pole), and Desafio Espanol in race 6 ran away from Alinghi on the last run. Alinghi might be the fastest (and they have a brand new boat too), but I'm still optimistic.

So now, for the next few weeks, the challengers are facing off head-to-head. I'll be watching and keeping tabs. For all America's Cup info, use the link on the right.