For many readers, the instinctive answer to the question in my title may well be a loud "NO!" I'll try to convince you otherwise.
If you've been following the Louis Vuitton Cup on Outdoor Life Network, Virtual Spectator, or in news reports, you don't have to be told that the challenger eliminations leading to the America's Cup have had their high points. By the time of the last races in the round robins, the boats were pretty even in speed, most were sailed consistently well, and the competition was extremely tight. The quarterfinals in mid to late November are sure to have thrilling racing.
There also have been some low points. So many races were blown out in October that viewers (including this one, who is watching in the OLN studio every night) began to wonder if the two round robins ever would end. The challengers surely were overcautious when they set upper wind limits for starting (19 knots) or racing (23 knots). They had two goals: to try to protect the boats from damage; and to prepare the eventual winner for what some people think will be predominating moderate winds during the Cup races in New Zealand's summer (even though there was plenty of fresh air in the 2000 Cup). The ceiling probably has been kept low and artificially rigid by the mechanisms and routines for measuring wind strength.
But the most discouraging moment in the early going was what I've come to call Damage Day. On October 29 (U.S. time), after four straight days of races lost to hard blows, a trio of America's Cup Class boats - one-third of the Louis Vuitton fleet - suffered breakdowns that caused their races to be postponed to the next day. A winch system blew up on Prada, one of the Italian boats. On Le Defi Areva, the French boat, a jumper strut (a mast support aloft) was pulled out by a wandering running backstay. And a jib car threatened to take leave of the deck of Stars & Stripes. (Oracle BMW angrily claimed that Stars & Stripes had contrived the incident to get out of racing that day, but damage was visible in photographs. Oracle dropped the protest.)
The postponements were legal under the rules of the Louis Vuitton Cup. On a day with two races, if a boat suffers damage before race 2 and if umpires inspecting the boat decide that she is not in "a reasonable state of readiness as existed for the first race of the day," then that boat's second race may be postponed to another day. The goal of having each boat capable of racing at her best at all times makes sense if you accept the assumption that an America's Cup Class yacht is not a boat (as we normally think of one) but, rather, a highly refined machine built to serve an extremely specialized purpose - in this case, to race around a six-mile course at peak performance. In this way of thinking, an ACC entry is to normal sailboats what an Indy car is to the family SUV.
But to people who don't accept that assumption, Damage Day is a puzzlement, even an outrage. They don't believe that any boat can be anything other than a boat that's accountable to the normal rules and traditions of good seamanship.
|"Don't let those acrobatic guys shinnying up foreguys fool you into thinking that the 16 sailors in each boat are daredevils."|
So your answer to the question I posed at the start of this column may depend on what you think of Stars & Stripes and her ilk. Are they fragile, special-purpose instruments, or boats that should be able to get through any condition? Most of you probably are in the second group. Average sailors all over America - women and men who regularly sail two or three races a day, weekend after weekend - must be wondering why these multi-million dollar vessels can't finish a 90-minute race on a perfect day without suffering incapacitating injury. Bill Trenkle, the operations manager of Stars & Stripes, may have had you in mind when, after Damage Day, he said, "There probably shouldn't be this many breakdowns. We had so few in the first round and it's quite surprising to have this many today. But there's obviously something all the challengers have to work on."
And so say all of us who recognize that, as specialized as an ACC boat is, it still can't get around the course without careful seamanship.
In fact, Damage Day aside, there's been plenty of admirable seamanship on view in Auckland. The Louis Vuitton Cup rules generally encourage it. Consider this rule: On a day with one race, a boat may ask for a 45-minute postponement of the start for any reason, but if her crew can't fix the problem in 45 minutes, the race starts without her (And each boat is permitted only one pre-race postponement per round). But the issue here is seamanship, not rules. Every night on your television screens, sound seamanship is obvious through the eyes of onboard cameras and the ears of onboard microphones. Don't let those acrobatic guys shinnying up foreguys fool you into thinking that the 16 sailors in each boat are daredevils.
Here are a few techniques that I've noted. Many of these procedures and disciplines belong in any boat under sail:
Practicing for emergencies.
Tacking, jibing, managing the rare emergency - all goes like clockwork because the crew has anticipated every problem. As one example, once the spinnaker is set, a backup chute comes on deck in its bag - just in case the first one rips.
A more dramatic example occurred too late to be included in OLN's coverage but is sure to make the highlight shows. At the top of the last leg in the last race of Round Robin 2, on November 2, Oracle's spinnaker pole snapped in two. Although she was on the verge of broaching in a fresh breeze, the bowmen responded smartly without any sign of panic. First, they stopped the chute's wild oscillations by leading the windward spinnaker sheet through a block on the bow and pulling down hard. Next, they splinted the pole with a kit carried for this purpose. Within 10 minutes the pole was back in position and the crew at work dousing the jib, whose halyard was stuck aloft (bowman Billy Bates went aloft and opened the shackle with a spike). Despite all these problems, on this leg Oracle actually gained time on her opponent, Victory Challenge, and in winning the race jumped in the standings from fourth to second place.
In my experience, one of the greatest but least-known risks on any sailboat is a doused sail left lying on deck. A genoa spread across the foredeck can disguise an open hatch that a crewmember can inadvertently step through, with a high probability of serious injury. And a sail on deck can catch spray or trail overboard, taking with it stanchions. As you watch the Cup boats sail, notice that as soon as a jib comes down, it's dumped below and later reappears in a sausage-shaped sailbag that's carefully secured until the time comes to hoist.
Sheets, halyards, and running backstay tails are secured and otherwise handled with meticulous care. Halyards and sheets are flaked or coiled so they will run out smoothly, and sailors also devote their full attention to securing lines - loaded and unloaded alike - in the teeth of self-tailing winches. (You'll see no traditional horn cleats, which grab lines and trip feet.)
On a boat making 10 knots almost all the time in even a moderate breeze, and with loads approaching 9,000 pounds on sheets and 50,000 pounds on the rig, clear communications are crucial. All that talk on board may at first seem like aimless chatter as the boats are on the starting line and coming into marks and jibes, but if you listen carefully you'll hear careful countdowns and terse instructions.
Communication is so important that each boat has its own radio system, complete with earphones, so the bowmen, the trimmers, the helmsman, and the tactician can all talk over the 70-foot expanse between the bow and the back of the cockpit.
Timing and coordination are at a premium. In a jibe, if the guys on the helm, the main sheet, and the running backstays are off by even a beat, the mast will tumble over the bow. (ACC boats do not have permanent backstays, which would break battens in their batwing-shaped mainsails.)
Observe how the sailors move around the boat. They're trained athletes in the peak of condition, but they still keep their weight low, and they brace themselves with legs and arms. As of early November, I've heard of one serious injury - a Swedish sailor who fell backward down a hatch.
Sails are not allowed to fill until they are fully hoisted and the halyards are cleated. If you listen carefully, you'll hear someone announce when the halyard is two-blocked (fully hoisted). No doubt the halyards are clearly marked at that point. Keeping the sails under firm control is a reason for stopping spinnakers with rubber bands (another is to prevent hourglassing twists).
Some crews send halyards that are not in use aloft on light lines called mice or messengers, in order to save weight and windage up high and to relieve clutter at the mast. My OLN colleague Dawn Riley, who has sailed aboard three Cup boats, tells me that this is standard operating procedure except in heavy weather.
My point here is that as unusual and refined as America's Cup Class yachts (and the rules that govern them) may be, they still demand normal seamanship. The sailors who practice it every day are at the peak of our pastime, and they can teach us much if we pay attention to them.