From Lipton to Redbull
The 35th edition of the America's Cup has just ended in Bermuda. It was absolutely amazing but it seems that this revolution, initiated seven years ago by Larry Ellison and sir Russell Coutts is still finding it's footing.
This 167 year old lady the America's Cup has had a lot of face lifts. The Clinics of Valencia and San Francisco had left only the skin on her bones, and this last Bermudian transformation just caused her to lose her DNA. Certainly, the surgeons in charge of the treatment, passionate lovers and many times her escort, only wanted the best for her. Promising her a new youthful glow from the touch of wise experienced men. We believed it instantly, even while facing the distorting mirror of novelty we believed in this transformation.
Naturally every revolution unleashes the passions and the pitfalls. Of course the pinnacle of the sailing world could not resist the call to speed any longer. Full of concentrated technology requiring incredible talent...from the conception, to the builders, to the exceptional drivers, these catamarans flying above the sea at 80kmh fascinated us since San Francisco, four years ago.
The conundrum is that a ship which goes fast doesn’t need sails, and so therefore no need of sailors. To be precise, these flying multihulls certainly require a minimum of sail propulsion to take off, but once in the air, too much sail surface only generates extra drag. So there are no more spinnakers, no genoa, no gennaker. They also have an enormous need for energy to operate and regulate their appendages (foils rudder, wing). This energy, generally hydraulic, is partially stored in accumulators and is totally generated by "sailors" who practically do nothing but pedalling or turning cranks.
On these AC50 boats that have been racing on the last months, we have four hard working hamsters, one pilot and one wing adjuster in charge of the "throttle". It would be very easy, if it was allowed, to replace the 4 big arms (or thighs) with one engine. This would make the maneuvers more fluid and faster and would increase the tactical interest. Since the tacking sequence is limited by the amount of oil pressure, the helmsman can only initiate a turn if the lights are "green" or when the hamsters are all red ...which is almost the same.
How does one differentiate a winner and second place? The winner is the one who commits the least amount of errors. On these 'press button' catamarans, the errors are quite visible and sometimes spectacular (capsizing, untimely landings…) but the causes are not. They can come from an impressive degree of parameters that are totally opaque in the eyes of the public, and sometimes even the sailors themselves. Is this the right way to excite the crowds?
Hmmm... But if they can't understand the error, how can they appreciate an accurate execution? How can we differentiate luck from talent when the consequence of a choreographed move and a perfect synchronisation of things are not simple to see or to hear?
I can tell you one thing; the task of a commentator is sometimes difficult, even if the quality of images offered is exceptional. The artistic notes or lack thereof are relatively easily attributed, especially for a capsize, but concerning the technical subtleties, we are in a technological fog devoid of emotion. In the final phases of the challenger series, four additional cameras were installed on the ship. To see what else? A talented New Zealand team pressed up “against the clock”, two-thirds of the crew heads down toward the pedal (not even knowing where they are and barely where they are going) facing four handsome fellows cranking on cranks, before running over to the other hull to do the same.
The main characteristic of a revolution is sometimes to come back to the starting point, most importantly having learned from the journey. I think it's fair to say that these exciting few years have taught us much and confirmed quite a few things.
Yes, it was necessary to change the format, equally important how the races were sailed and how best to share this spectacle. And many positive developments are to be credited to the last defenders (OTUSA).
Most private ship-owners have fled and are taking refuge on the Class J (replicas of the great historic monohulls of the early 19th century) and the maxi monohulls. They are expecting a sign (which may come from New Zealand in few weeks) to show their affectionate heartbeat again.
There are half as few teams involved than in 2007 despite a transition to monohulls (which is supposed to be cheaper and therefore attractive)
This confirms that the current product, although theoretically attractive, is not easy to sell in its entirety on the communication markets. Sailing is not a major sport, even though there are some extremely popular events sometimes, France is the only country very well served by its regional products like the Vendée Globe and the Route du Rhum.
Willing to make the America’s Cup a consumer product (and therefore commercial) is a laudable but delicate endeavour. Stickers & logos don’t fit and sometimes hurt her; she is never fulfilled because she loves the spotlight, but only gets to be in it every four years. The time away to be better desired by this small handful of passionate ship-owners have made it a frantic court for more than a century and a half, without which very few teams would be present.
We want to be drunk right away without going through the tipsy part. Just happy to consume two or three videos on the net, with flying boats, Soap boxes hanging from a hill, fading out to silhouettes of Batman costumes gazing at the mountains, and then we move on something else.
Michel Audiard makes Jean Gabin say in the movie 'Un singe en hiver' "I do not lack of alcohol, I miss drunkenness"
My third participation in the America’s Cup has just ended and it was a fascinating experience, but while watching and commenting on what the spectacle offered, I missed the drunkenness: The drunkenness of history and merit, Sailors working in unison handling hundreds of square meters and kilometers of ropes; the drunkenness of sharing between fiery youth and respect of experience.
The Cup has been full of a beverage aged in barrels for decades, it is true that to appreciate it requires an acute palate and a certain tendency to vintage. And for the initiated who have journeyed into this vast world of sailing passion, it's patiently allowed us to grasp all its nuances, and given us the desire to understand its finesse. While sometimes bitter for the defeated, it's fragrance and tannins are a result of generations of passionate ship-owners and talented sailors concocting this special vintage for us. In contrast, today we are served a concentrated blast of explosive juice whose first scents rip through the palate and prick the eyes, but the flavour does not retain in the mouth.
So yes, for the shooters addicts, one can make an annual circuit of "formula one sailing bubble something shots" with just one pilot and one co-pilot, helmed and harnessed like samurai, on a flying boat, capsizing, running and changing foils in pit stops between two heats. In short, a pure product perfectly suited to the very concept of these so called energizing drinks that make you rush higher only to crash hard for even longer. A nice drink to guzzle with enough time to wolf down three pizzas and two cartons of popcorn. But this is not the America’s Cup
I do not mean that it was better before, because that's not entirely true either. But we are talking about THE America’s Cup ! It’s not that concentrated stuff. And I cannot help but think that there is surely a middle ground between the spectacle with the popular potential, and the majesty of the maneuvers of a monohull.
- What ?
- That’s what I said and YES a monohull !!!
- But its too crazy, we will never comeback to monos, you are nuts!
- Yes, well, maybe but imagine this
A monohull of the future, ultra light and unstable enough to have only the best helmsmen (not only young), yet sufficiently safe that we continue to see proud ship-owners happy to take the helm occasionally, fast enough to frighten more than one, big enough to reconnect with the vintage elegance and the crew choreography, risky enough to create interest for all, sufficiently athletic requiring only the best; and finally, the most importantly, just slow enough to still see a good bunch of sailors with true "ropes" in hands and real sails in the eyes.