I thought it would be a good idea to look back on the America’s Cup. This competition in sailing was recently staged in San Francisco…and in my previous blogs and in my newsletter, “Back on the Block”, I’ve described and commented on the technology behind these amazing ‘sailing machines’.
The first thing to say is well done, to each of the teams, to all the crew of each competing boat. What a fantastic performance and contribution from each of you.
The setting was fabulous. San Francisco Bay is just superb.
The Bay provided an excellent sailing venue.
The technology behind these ‘sailing machines’ is cutting edge in nearly all respects – design, materials, navigation, equipment, communications as well as management and team dynamics…I keep thinking of AK47’s, perhaps as analogous to the fierceness and speed these boats have achieved.
This was an example of hi tech being proven and further developed ‘on the job’. Both competing vessels, designed and built in New Zealand – that is where the exceptional boat building knowhow for these carbon fibre constructions has emerged – were on the verge of experimental, having been designed against a template produced for the America’s Cup by holders USA. During the series of races, Oracle Team US applied substantial resources in both computer assisted design and testing as well as actual remaking of the hull and catamaran wings to create an edge that proved a part of a winning strategy. Ultimately Oracle was able to lift off the water sooner and at higher speed and that gave them a 1 to 1.5 knots advantage over team New Zealand in upwind positions.
The teams were superb. No question. Make no mistake, both teams improved their boats and their performance tremendously during the series of races. Oracle just did it better.
Determined, aggressive, committed, highly trained and honed, specialists in their tasks, total team players…experts at tactics, focused and dedicated.
There they were, garbed in protective gear as if a mix of Evel Knievel, grid iron and car racing gear. Well, after all, those boats reached speeds of about 80kph when up on their keels. And earlier in the year one sailor was killed during racing trials in a high speed accident.
The team ‘grew’ with their boats. The New Zealanders it seems grew earlier since they had much more early stage racing during the Louis Vuitton Cup contenders series. The American crew were later in coming on strong and seem to have worked most effectively with the changes their team was able to implement. The US team was gritty and aggressive and motivated by each last chance success. The New Zealanders seemed to be less hard-hitting and with their major advantage of several race wins placing them ahead during the competition, coupled with little ability to match in any way the massive Oracle ‘remake’ of their boat, did they lose an element of psychological edge that may have ultimately made a difference?
Who were these sailors? Well, mostly New Zealanders and Australians. Oracle’s crew included 2 Americans and one Brit, Sir Ben Ainslie who was called in after the American boat lost its first two races. Oracle Team US was directed by Sir Russell Coutts, a kiwi, several times a winning America’s Cup crewman. Their crew skipper was Aussie Jimmy Spithill. Emirates Team New Zealand was all kiwi, led by Grant Dalton and Dean Barker – great guys. Overall, the competition demonstrated the enormous depth and prowess of kiwi yachtsmen – a good example of punching way above their weight.
Throw in the enormous contribution to the Cup by New Zealand maritime / boat building and equipment specialists and what a punch those kiwis have in this field. It is no wonder their industry is commissioned time after time to design and build the largest leisure cruisers in the world for the wealthiest people.
For New Zealand, the impact of their team’s loss was widely felt. Maybe moreso than their defeat at Valencia in 2007. The country had again come together as that marvellous “stadium of 4 million people”. We saw it during the Rugby World Cup of 2011. Full of emotion and unending encouragement for their team. Some 50 years ago New Zealnd was excited by the successes abroad of Peter Snell and Murray Halberg in athletics, that a horse called Cardigan Bay from NZ had won at Yonkers, that the All Blacks had beaten South Africa and that Roy Orbison at the height of his fame had decided to buy a property in New Zealand (I wonder if he ever did!). Talk about being on the world stage. Well, much water and other sludge has gone under the bridge since then but even now, New Zealand often excels.
What did it all cost? A lot. Reports of Larry Ellison’s spend to develop their boat range between $100 million and more than $300 million. I suspect it depends on what you attribute as costs. There is no doubt that his company Oracle devoted substantial resources to design, simulation and even management integration technology which was not even accessible to the New Zealand team , let alone within their financial means. The New Zealand effort cost around $100 million. Emirates was of course a sponsor for the New Zealand team, and the New Zealand government contributed some $35 million. The payback is substantial for New Zealand – more tourism, higher respect and attention to its business ability and tech capacity. For Larry Ellison and Oracle, it will be interesting to see how they use their win to elevate their brand – certainly the determination to solve problems and win, the capability to perform under extreme stress and pressure, the performance of integration and coordination systems that delivered to the max….these are all major attributes that a software company such as Oracle can capture and deliver to their clients.
Perhaps the big question for the future is whether the costs of new technology and design can ‘sit’ with a lower cost structure so that more contenders can be attracted to the competition. It is marvellous that Bob Oatley has indicated he will lead an Australia challenge for the America's Cup in the next competition; I hope New Zealand will also; could a joint A + NZ tilt be out of the question?
The spectator engagement was a major step forward. Never before have we been able to watch such races as if aboard; with the thrill of high speed and danger thrust onto television. The augmented reality, race analytics and interpretation graphics were amazing. This has led to an opening up, for many, of the mysteries of sailboat racing. Audiences in the US, especially as the US team moved towards victory, grew rapidly. Sure, they don’t match the audiences for football and other major sports…but there is little doubt this series will stimulate much interest and even wider viewing in hi-tech sailing in the future. I'll bet on a some new computer games that take up America's Cup simulations.