Re: Another America’s Cup entry destroyed
This appeared in the WALL STREET JOURNAL yesterday... Bruce Knecht has done a lot of writing about sailing and maritime subjects, his book THE PROVING GROUND is one of the best about the 1998 Sydney-Hobart disaster, it's a riveting read...
May 17, 2013, 6:33 p.m. ET
Larry Ellison's Dangerous America's Cup
The new boats have made the race life-threatening—and have dumbed down the sailing.
By G. BRUCE KNECHT
Last week, an Olympic gold medalist died in San Francisco Bay while training for America's Cup, the world's most famous sailing competition. British sailor Andrew Simpson's death is the latest evidence that the current competition is fundamentally flawed.
Billionaire Larry Ellison's ambitions for the America's Cup have always gone beyond winning, which he did in 2010 with his Team Oracle. The America's Cup winner determines the ground rules for the next competition, and Mr. Ellison created a new class of large but lightweight double-hulled vessels that are powered by solid "wing" sails. He hoped the supercharged catamarans would catapult the 162-year-old event into the modern age and transform it into a spectator sport fit for TV.
In terms of the hardware, Mr. Ellison has succeeded. When the wings and wind are properly aligned, the 72-foot boats—or AC72s, as they are known—literally lift out of the water, supported only by the foils on their daggerboards, the retractable keels that drop down from each of the hulls. The vessels skim across the water at speeds of close to 50 miles per hour.
In October, an AC72 built by Mr. Ellison's team, Oracle Team USA, flipped and was severely damaged. The wipeout came as a surprise to many—but not to the sailors. They already knew that AC72s are dangerous, overpowered beasts that are always skating on the edge of catastrophe.
This risk—plus the massive expense to design and build the boats—is why Mr. Ellison failed to deliver on his promise that more than a dozen teams would challenge Oracle for the cup this year. Only three signed up: Artemis Racing, representing Sweden; Luna Rossa Challenge, bankrolled by Patrizio Bertelli, the owner of Prada and a longtime sponsor of Italy's America's Cup campaigns; and Emirates Team New Zealand, the airline-backed national team.
The fatal accident came when one of Artemis Racing's bows dug into the water and structural elements disintegrated, causing the vessel to fold up on itself and capsize. Mr. Simpson, a 36-year-old married father of two, was trapped underneath.
Artemis has not determined whether it will press on with its campaign. Luna Rossa's Mr. Bertelli says he will leave it up to his crew. "If they told me to stop, that wouldn't be a problem for me," he told Yacht Capital, an Italian sailing magazine, last week. "This Cup with the AC72s is too extreme. They have to realize it and change, revise the rules, everything."
Having written about sailing for the last 15 years, I believe Mr. Bertelli is correct, and that Larry Ellison should rethink the guidelines for this year's race.
Mr. Ellison didn't become one of the world's richest men by holding back from challenges. When I interviewed him for my book about the deadly 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race, in which he sailed, he told me he believed the purpose of life is to engage in difficult competitions to determine how good we are.
But after the Hobart Race, during which six sailors died, Mr. Ellison said there had to be limits: "This is not what racing is supposed to be. Difficult, yes. Dangerous, no. Life-threatening, definitely not." Because of the Hobart Race, Mr. Ellison gave up ocean racing and turned to inshore sailing contests such as the America's Cup. "I decided to focus on a more technical and less life-threatening form of sailing," he told me in 2008.
Yet it is Mr. Ellison who has made the America's Cup dangerous. Until his involvement, beginning in 2000, winning was determined both by the intrinsic speeds of the boats and by tactical decisions about where each team positioned its vessel relative to the opposition throughout the race.
The AC72s are all about straight-line speed. They are so difficult, time-consuming and dangerous to turn that boat-to-boat tactics are less important than simply keeping the monsters under control. Consequently, the enhanced technological sophistication of the AC72s has had the effect of dumbing down the sailing, another reason for Mr. Ellison to reconsider.
The Cup, which is supposed to begin in September after an elimination round in July, would not have to be postponed. Since 2011, the contenders have been racing against each other in much safer 45-foot catamarans. The Cup could be sailed with them.
You're probably thinking that the headstrong Mr. Ellison will never agree to it. You are probably right. Then again, he understands that his legacy will be forever intertwined with the America's Cup. Not long before he became the first American to win it since 1995, I suggested to him that if he prevailed the first words of his obituary might be about sailing rather than his business achievements. He did not disagree. "Oracle could disappear someday," he said. "The America's Cup will not."
Indeed. The best way for Mr. Ellison to secure his position as the founder of the modern-day America's Cup would be to admit that the AC72s are a mistake.
Mr. Knecht is the author of "The Proving Ground: the Inside Story of the 1998 Sydney to Hobart Race" (Little, Brown & Co., 2001).
In addition, what I thought was a very good proposal from LATITUDE 38, written after the first capsize of ORACLE last October:
A Modest Proposal
October 17, 2012 – San Francisco Bay
It took yesterday's capsize — and recovery, such as it was — of the Oracle AC72 to make us fully appreciate just how gigantic and unwieldy these catamarans are. Actually, it wasn't the capsizing in 25 knots of wind that shocked us — at some point we all expected that to happen — but rather the video of the nine Oracle rescue boats struggling in vain to keep the askew monster from drifting a reported four miles outside the Gate on a strong ebb. "We're a little out of control here!" the video screamed at us.
Thank god nobody was seriously hurt or killed. Let us repeat that: Thank god nobody was seriously hurt or killed.
We were even more surprised by the fact that — while the capsized Oracle was still drifting out the Gate, and bits of her main were becoming souvenirs all over the Bay — it was announced that nothing has changed, and that the America's Cup 34 will continue as planned.
In the past, Oracle honcho Russell Coutts has seemed to confess that maybe they had gone a little too extreme with the parameters of the AC72s in an attempt to make the America's Cup competition more exciting. Ya think? As such, it crosses our minds that the capsize of the Oracle cat, and the total destruction of her main, might signal a perfect opportunity to take a week or so to digest what has happened, what it portends for the event as planned, and what possible alternatives there might be.
At this stage of the game, it would be extremely embarassing, very poor form, and create an uproar if dramatic changes were made to the very fundamentals of the 34th America's Cup. On the other hand, would it not be even worse form and more humiliating if not even two of the 72s, and their mains, survived their trials for there to even be an America's Cup?
If we were Russell Coutts, and more importantly, Larry Ellison, we would take this opportunity to suggest an alternative to all interested stakeholders. The alternative is that the huge — as well as hugely expensive and hugely complicated AC72 cats — be scrapped as of right now. To make up for what the other teams have invested, Larry would purchase a MOD 70 trimaran for each of the teams that has participated so far. Given the much less expensive option, other syndicates might decide to jump in.
Despite having only soft sails, these brand new extremely high performance trimarans from VPVL have proven themselves, both when sailing across the Atlantic and in inshore races in Europe. We're talking over 700 miles in 24 hours in their first ocean race, and lots of mid-30s at other times. The MOD 70s are only two feet shorter than the AC72s, damn near as fast, and cost a fraction of the price. And having raced across the Atlantic at 30+ knots, have what it takes to race safely on San Francisco Bay.
Since the MOD 70s are one-designs with soft sails, they are compartively easy, quick and inexpensive to build — particularly when compared to the AC72s. And because the first batch was made in Europe, we're sure another dozen could be made in time for next year's slated World Series in Venice, Italy, in April and Naples, Italy, in May, and be already in Europe for those events. After the European World Series, they could be shipped to Newport, Rhode Island, and then San Francisco, for additional World Series events in the summer of '13. That means the America's Cup 34 would be postponed until '14, which is fine with us, as we think it's a much better prospect than what we're sailing toward now. And one last thing that we think every spectator would agree on — the America's Cup should be fleet racing, not match-racing, which is so last century.