Rich Roberts Reports
Wind rules, not TV, may sink this America's Cup
By Rich Roberts
Any questions as to why sailboat racing will never make it as a mainstream sport were put to rest this week. Between the Outdoor Life Network's introductory America's Cup effort to a U.S. audience and the race boats running for cover at the first sign of a whitecap, the attention span of even hardcore sailors is being seriously challenged.
Now, we're all very grateful that OLN picked up the ball, because without that we'd have nothing but the baseball playoffs and Martha Stewart.
But while the seven-year-old network offers wonderful views of people catching fish, blasting birds and performing "action" sports, its sailing presentation needs a little work.
For one thing, it's that studio in Connecticut, where Dawn Riley and Chris Law commentate with host Bill Patrick. Linked to the venue by a feed from TV New Zealand, the set has the nautical touch of a boxcar.
Then there are the issues of scant information on the other three matches in progress, cutaways before mark roundings and critical crossings and even the TVNZ announcers chattering over the more interesting conversations of the afterguards with their onboard microphones.
And that's only half the problem. OLN or Steven Spielberg would be hard-pressed to suck any drama out of most of the races nowadays.
Remember 1987 and the telecasts from Fremantle by a fledgling little network called ESPN? What wonderful theater that was, with those sturdy old 12-Meters thrashing around in 35-knot winds on the Indian Ocean on a mission to bring the Cup back to America.
Forget it. There'll be none of that, because races aren't run when the wind blows too hard.
"It's ridiculous," says Jim Pugh. "It's a joke. It's bad for the event and it's bad for the sport."
That's a profound comment, coming from someone involved in designing International America's Cup Class boats. Pugh is the outspoken half of the world-class, San Diego-based design team of Reichel/Pugh. He and John Reichel created Team Dennis Conner's two new boats, one of which (USA 66) was featured in OLN's opening show executing a 20-second win over Britain's scrappy GBR.
The other (USA 77), alas, sank off Long Beach last July, although it has been resurrected and reconstructed.
But don't blame the designers. They're only working to the rules established by the challengers. As in '99-2000, the notice of race and conditions governing the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger trials states that races will not start if winds are less than 7 knots or in excess of 19 knots for a period of five minutes at any time during the 15 minutes prior to the preparatory signal. Once a race starts, it can be abandoned if winds of 23 knots are sustained for five minutes.
So why would anyone design a stronger, heavier and thus slower boat?
But turn the equation around. The challengers wanted light boats because they expected that's what Team New Zealand would have for the anticipated lighter winds in February. So they wrote a rule to avoid exposing their boats to risky conditions.
However, the premise is questionable. A little research shows that three years ago in the LVC through January, most races were run in middle-teen winds, and 12 of 63 race days were abandoned---nine because of strong winds and three when the wind was too light.
During the final match in February, when the winds were supposed to be light, they peaked at 13, 13, 16, 10 and 24 knots for the five races, all of which had similar results: runaway wins by TNZ over Prada. And two days were abandoned when the wind blew TOO hard.
Pugh thinks it's time to re-do the IACC rule.
"Maybe some of the class parameters need to be changed to define a bit of a different boat," he says. "These boats are dated, anyway. The wind for the limits was developed for San Diego, where very rarely you would get that much breeze. Now we're in a windy venue with similar or lower wind limits. It's kind of crazy."
In other words, they're still building boats to the edge for San Diego, not the Hauraki Gulf.
"You raise the edge when you know that's what you've gotta race in," Pugh says. "We do it for boats that go offshore and can't come in when it's windy. They should be able to start in 25, maybe 30 knots. There are all sorts of races in parts of this country where club racers go out and race in that. Build the boat for the conditions. I think they should be out there sailing.
"It's in protected waters, anyway. Even when it blows from the north, it's not like you're in the ocean. It's not like Fremantle. We've got to stop complaining about the TV when we can't go sailing, anyway."
OLN's act will get better. The racing is doubtful.