Like catching a glimpse of Halley’s Comet (weather permitting)

Published on September 24th, 2013

By Roger Vaughan, contributing author, Sailing on the Edge
After serious initial problems with the boats — a learning curve steep as the north face of the Eiger; the death of a sailor prompting safety regulations that involved outfitting crews with body armor, crash helmets, oxygen bottles, and large survival knives; and an extremely boring Louis Vuitton Cup — the perpetrators of AC 34 lucked out and ended up with two boats that are quite evenly matched, and two talented, courageous crews that know how to sail them.

The two teams have provided a lot of fast-paced, edge-of-the-seat excitement. For a while there it looked like AC 34 was going to be the most misguided, expensive flop in the history of sport. The perpetrators got bailed out at the 11th hour, and saw their vision come to fruition on San Francisco Bay. What amazing good luck.

But is it sail boat racing? That’s a discussion. It should least have another name. I think a new, on-the-water sport has been created. Let’s call it Mega Speed Foiling (MSF) until something snappier comes along.

The truth is it can’t last. Why? There’s really only one reason: it costs too much to put this show on the water. It costs so much that only Larry Ellison, one of the 5 richest men in the world, and the oil barons of the Emirates, can really afford it. Yes there was a Swedish team, and an Italian team, but they were never in the running. Each team is at +/- $100 million … the defender believed to be ++ $100 million.

The design/engineering teams for both finalists are formidable in both size and brain power. So is the shore crew (builders) that stays up all night repairing the boat. These are not your every day designers, scientists, and builders. These are top of the line practitioners in their fields. They get paid handsomely.

And both teams have two boats along with the coaches and assorted administrative and support people and logistics (food, lodging) and gear that go with them. It is said that one grinder on the Oracle boat is getting paid $250,000 for his efforts (for example). It takes 40 people to launch or retrieve an AC72, not to mention the cranes and rolling gear and mountains of hardware involved.

The America’s Cup has always been an elitist sport, one contested by very wealthy men. But AC34 has attained some sort of ultimate elitism that has to be reeled in. Why? So we have a few more players. You can’t have any sport without players, and if no one can afford to play that’s going to be very bad for the America’s Cup.

In the end we can thank Larry Ellison – and his sidekick Russell Coutts – for having this over-the-top MSF vision, for spending the fortune needed to make it happen, and then having the good luck to produce an exciting match. It’s a good thing we have the videos, and a handsome book about it (SAILING ON THE EDGE), and our memories, because like catching a glimpse of Halley’s Comet (weather permitting), it’s a once in a lifetime occurrence.

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