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Changing the sailing rules, again

2017 September 1

America’s Cup foiling ranks among the top technical feats of this young century, on par with the booster rocket that lands itself or the pictures sent from the surface of a comet. Well-funded teams of great engineers make miracles.

Had someone suggested 10 years ago that grinding would become peddling or that a seated helmsman would grasp a Formula One wheel with two hands, or that the crew would need helmets to prevent death since closing speeds might hit 90 mph, I’d have flipped open my Nokia to call and tell them that they were nuts. Nobody predicted that sailing could change and go so fast. And if foiling some of the time isn’t amazing enough, consider that the new target is something called a “perfect race,” in which a hull never touches water from start to finish including through all tacks and jibes. 

Besides gobs of cash, smart techies with big data are the fuel that power such perfection. Wired Magazine reports that sensors mounted all over the boats collect real-time conditions during races, not just about wind, angles and speed, but loads, lift, limits and flow. Land-based engineers can download analytical models for review while crews use the data for real-time decision making. Think about a football coach spying a mismatch between a receiver and a defender and calling for the deep ball; but in this case, the observations are about actual physics, not just physiques, and the coaches call moves based on facts, not just intuition.

However, this crash-course in data-driven design and competition may be coming to an abrupt end. Unlike the booster rocket that returns home to save money, it’s hard to see the motive for what just happened in Bermuda. In fact, it’s been hard for us common folk to understand the underpinnings of the America’s Cup for most of its history. One might argue that the first competitions were held, at least in part, to assert American merchant sailing dominance, if not directly, then in the national psyche. Then privilege overran patriotism during the time of railroad monopolies which funded the gargantuan Universal Rule J-Class Boats.

The 12-Meter rule attempted to shrink and democratize the game. Clubs helped part-time skippers assemble teams of large-bodied amateurs, and drama and charisma made national news and celebrities of Turner, Jobson, Melges and of course, Conner.

Since then, the event has returned to what my co-columnist Chris Caswell calls an “embarrassment of riches.”

I have only met a couple of billionaires. Though my sample is small, they’re unique in a shared unwillingness to play a game unless they can write its rules.

The magnetism of the America’s Cup is that its winners take all the spoils, including authorship of the next rulebook. It’s a 100-year experiment in regulatory uncertainty. Imagine what the Golden State Warriors would do to the game of basketball with that kind of power. Then along came an oracle who looked in the mirror and saw a certain destiny: he was about to be the last man standing. To buy time for his bigger plans, he downsized this year’s event and held it on an exotic island to attract a few friends.

The oracle had also seen that rule changes confuse us common folk. People need things explained with laser pointers by color commentators. The field of play must fit on our screens, and the fast and furious show must fit between commercial breaks. He cajoled his competitors into an agreement: his rules would rule for good. They would form an America’s Cup tour, making stops like NASCAR, selling T-shirts like the PGA and VIP box seats like any other stadium sport.

Only the New Zealand team, having reportedly signed a back-room deal with an Italian billionaire, didn’t agree with the oracle, and promptly snatched the Cup and its rulebook. Rumor is that we’ll be watching monohulls next time. Engineered miracles be damned.