Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Ch-ch-ch-changes…










It’s over… finally. Just like that – you wait ages for an America’s Cup race, then two come along at once. All of a sudden, everything has changed. The Bertarelli era is over (although the dust has still to settle), and the Ellison era has begun. 

It’s time to move on, but quite what the transfer of power might entail is still more obscure than what might happen after the next UK election. The leaders of BMW Oracle are understandably focussed on enjoying their triumph, leaving the field open to rampant speculation on what the future might hold for the Cup - everything seems up for discussion, from how many hulls, down to the more traditional speculation about the venue.

For what it’s worth, my view is that great sport is about exceptional people doing extraordinary things under unbelievable pressure. I don’t want to take anything away from the guys that built and sailed those two incredible pieces of technology, but if the 33rd America’s Cup produced anything similar to those links, it was invisible to this casual television spectator. 

If Larry Ellison and his team want a commercial America’s Cup, they need to put the action up front and centre. And perhaps - if the views recently expressed by Ellison to the Wall Street Journal and to the ABC are anything to go by - that’s what we’re going to get. It seems that Ellison’s first choice is a commercial, accessible, all-action Cup in San Francisco Bay.

I’ve always believed that the most consistently dramatic part of match racing is the pre-start, so that’s where a spectator-orientated Cup should focus. A match in the Bay would provide the opportunity to switch to very short courses, perhaps just a single lap, one mile (or less) windward-leeward, with the ‘race’ winner decided on a best-of-three-sets basis. It would put all the emphasis and pressure on those five minutes in the box – and I think that if you went for a change like that, it wouldn’t much matter whether the boat had one hull or three, planed upwind, downwind, or not at all.

It would also reduce the importance of the design contest, and hence allow teams with a much wider spread of budgets to be competitive. In turn, that would create a more open competition, and traditionally the Defender hasn’t been good at allowing that to happen. But if anyone has the confidence (and the record to back it up) to believe he can lead a team to defend the Cup against all-comers on a level playing field, it’s Russell Coutts. And this is the game that Larry Ellison was talking about in his interview with ABC - mentioning team budgets of US$2-4 million, and a regatta determined primarily by racing skill. If it happens it would be the most dramatic change we’ve yet seen in the sport of professional sailing.

Throwing the cards in the air and starting again has been a popular pastime for event organisers of late – Knut Frostad’s mission to drag the Volvo Ocean Race kicking and screaming into the 21st century has been on-going and well-documented. In the last week we’ve passed another minor milestone in this process, with the announcement of the first two stop-over ports for the 2011-12 edition, with another one to come on March 3rd. 

The first leg will end once again in Cape Town, while the trans-Atlantic crossing that heralds the return to Europe will finish in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. It's a long, long way south of previous trans-Atlantic finish ports, and will give the strategists plenty to think about, with a high probability that the Azores High will be parked on the great circle route. It might also hint at a North American port some way south of the previous Boston stop-over...

It’ll be interesting to see where Wednesday’s announcement takes us – straight up the English Channel to a Scandinavian finish? A stopover in Lorient is what the French reckon - and seems much more likely, with Groupama already having thrown their hat in the ring with an early race entry. I suspect that would leave the Irish a bit miffed after the great show they put on in 2009. The rest of the route will follow between now and the end of March. 

The other 300lb gorilla of the pro sailing circuit, the Vendee Globe, has less room to manoeuvre – changes to the fundamental principle of solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world are a little hard to imagine. But the attrition rate in the 2008-09 edition – only 11 of 30 starters finished – has also led to some serious soul searching. The result has been that IMOCA, the officiating body for the boats, has taken a long and serious look at the Open 60 rule

There are some significant changes, many of them focussed on safety. But the most dramatic is probably the decision to try and limit the power, and hence the speed potential of the boats. For the die-hards, this has long been the raison d’etre - Open 60 should mean what it says. But for good or bad, a failure rate of over 60% in that last Vendee Globe has brought a philosophical end (it could be argued that the practical end was reached some time ago) to the open era of the Open 60 class. 

The new rule limits the air draft (the height of the rig) to 29 metres for any boat measured after the 1st July 2009; while boats measured prior to this can’t exceed their original air draft (or 29m, whichever is the higher). And the rule goes on to specifically limit the maximum righting moment, for boats built after the same date, to 32 tons*meter – with a similar grandfathering condition.

If you need any evidence of the importance of righting moment to these offshore racers, cast your mind back to the last edition of the Volvo Ocean Race, when skipper, Ian Walker, and the crew of Green Dragon were vocal about the boat’s speed problems -  all laid at the door of a lighter bulb.

It was lighter because the all-up weight of the boat was fixed, and the design and build of Green Dragon left them with a heavier hull weight than the competition. To keep the boat under the overall limit the weight had to come from somewhere, and it came out of the bulb. In short: the more weight you put into the hull, the less you ended up with in the keel. 

This put an expensive premium on the time, care and attention lavished on the design and build of the hulls. It made it tough for teams that were either late to the game or short of cash (or both), leaving them building in a hurry, unable to research the lighter structures required to be competitive. This issue was addressed by the rule makers for the new version of the Volvo Open 70 rule. The keel weight is limited to 7,400 kgs, while the overall weight of the boat has been raised. 

If the rule makers got the sums right this will allow a lot more teams to build down-to-weight boats with the maximum amount of lead in the bulb. It should level the playing field by reducing the cash-for-splash design and build contest. Let's hope that - once the boats start getting built - this turns out to be the case. I’m all for level playing fields.

If we accept that righting moment is of such primary importance, then the Open 60 rule changes could throw up an interesting scenario for the next couple of seasons, because of the grandfather clause. Some of the old boats are significantly more powerful than the rule now allows – particularly the Juan Kouyoumdjian designed Pindar. Alex Thomson recently bought this boat to replace the Finot-Conq drawn Hugo Boss. By reputation, both boats have more power than the rule now allows, but it’s generally accepted that the Juan K design is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the class – the word on the street is that the boat has a third more righting moment than the new limit.

It would be too turkey-voting-for-Christmas-ish to expect the designers to tell anyone that they should buy an old boat, rather than take a new one from their drawing board. But Pascal Conq of Finot-Conq did say in a recent article, ‘Some of the 2008 boats are likely to be perfect for 2012, particularly as the new rules impose a limit on the power allowed.’

Thomson was quoted in a recent Seahorse story, ‘Then there are the new rules that limit power, so if you believe that you want righting moment, which I do, then it makes sense to buy the most powerful boat you can. The new boats have righting moment limited to 32 tonne-metres. Pindar has a bit more than that.’ 

Eventually, refinements in other areas of design will outweigh the advantage of raw power that Pindar, the old Hugo Boss and a few others now have – but in the meantime, it’s an opportunity to make some hay while the sun shines. Next winter’s Barcelona World Race will be the first test of this theory, and may well represent Thomson’s best chance yet of taking a major title. 

It seems I just got from the America’s Cup to the Barcelona World Race, via the Volvo Ocean Race and the Vendee Globe. There’s no shortage of stuff going on in the forest… ch-ch-ch-changes


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