TIME TO PANIC? uh, no
Everybody please relax. The America’s Cup is going to be fine.
The recent spate of negative headlines from Auckland to San Francisco will someday make comic collectibles. I seem to recall, not so many years ago, a great handwringing around the building of a ballpark that was sure to drag the City of San Francisco straight to gridlock-perdition . . .
A “disappointing turnout” at the America’s Cup World Series event in San Diego? I wasn’t disappointed. I was validated. Before the event I had told contacts in the office of the mayor, the tourism office, and the port that, sure, they should go to San Diego and observe and learn what they could. But don’t take San Diego as a predictive barometer for San Francisco. San Diego never got behind the Cup when it was in town, 1988 to 1995, there was no buzz over an off-season catamaran race in 2011, and most people never even heard about it. The turnout had to be modest. The competition itself was good. Among the citizenry of San Francisco, meanwhile, there is a tremendous upwelling of curiosity and excitement surrounding AC34. I experience it every time I go out to give a talk, whether to a sailing crowd or a Rotary. Is it such a stretch to convince anyone that San Diego is not San Francisco?
I also hear the catcalls and snide remarks, but not from the informed.
And yes, as a few people have “discovered,” only three Challengers at this point are building AC72s, plus Oracle Racing as Defender. Total of four. But if at least a few (very few) of us could believe in 2010 that the Defender really did want to race on San Francisco Bay—that it wasn’t a ploy—then perhaps a few of us can recognize the signs that there will be more than four AC72 teams in 2013. As America’s Cup Race Management CEO Iain Murray puts it, “We have four more teams that credibly could build an AC72. China Team, for example, has build space on hold at McConaghy in Zhuhai.” I personally am hopeful for the Spanish team, GreenCom. They’re not in-build, but Murray asserts, “There’s more than smoke and mirrors.”
June 1 is the deadline for AC45 teams to put up or shut up, to pay the critical entry fees to advance to next-level status as AC72 Challengers for America’s Cup 34. Those who are funded to build an AC72, will. And then we’ll know.
And yes again, expectations are being scaled back, in some cases in absolute numbers, but not in all cases. Those close to the event have been trying for at least a year to adjust public expectations around the idea that we’ll see peaks of public interest, not two and a half months of Fleet Week-sized crowds on every race day of 2013. That’s good news/bad news, meaning not so much traffic of potential customers/not so much congestion as some imagined. And yes, it is easier to sound an alarm than to think things through, easier to “discover” and cry crisis about ongoing concerns that are being carefully addressed, easier to make wisecracks about giving away the waterfront to a billionaire than to realize that San Francisco is getting an incredible deal. As one veteran of waterfront development says—this would be Simon Snellgrove, Pacific Waterfront Partners, speaking—”Larry Ellison will be lucky to break even.”
Folks, it’s called the Flats. The long news hole when the trench work begins, after the honeymoon (such as it was) and before the payoff, which begins this summer.
It’s hard to know where to begin.
So let’s start with the piers. 27-29 have been in the works for a long time, to be converted to a cruise ship terminal for the sake of that seasonal business, with a large, rentable public space working twelve months a year to fill in the down times. AC is not the driving force on that redevelopment, and the AC impact is modest but valuable: A few physical enhancements not in the original budget, and a period in which AC, renting public space, is the Port’s (very welcome) first customer. South of the Bay Bridge, Piers 30-32 have been deteriorating for years. They’re out of hand, with maybe five years of semi-useful life remaining; meaning, portions of 30-32 are strong enough to support the parking of light vehicles, but not heavy trucks. Without intervention, within this decade, 30-32 becomes rubble blocking the Embarcadero from the Bay. Before the America’s Cup there was no Plan A for 30-32; now there is no Plan B. The piers were put out for bid years ago, and the biggest developers in town looked at them, ran the numbers, and walked away.
America’s Cup needs 30-32 for team bases, so Larry Ellison’s group took the deal. They’ll shore up the existing structures enough to make them usable in 2013. Beyond that, they have a longterm lease in which to recoup multimillions in upfront costs. But to do anything they will have to go back to square one: Further restructuring. Permitting. A new Environmental Impact Review. Approvals from multiple agencies. Anyone who didn’t need the piers would run, not walk, away.
Port Director Monique Moyer has described the system of rebuilding the piers in exchange for longterm leasing rights as, “our standard tool; it’s how we did the ballpark and the Ferry Building.”
Now, I would never hire me to explain high finance, and there are more elements to the deal than I’ve described, and it’s fine and dandy if SF Supervisors such as John Avalos and David Campos want to play to an audience about watching out for the city’s money. But simple minded little me will keep going back to the simple equation, no Plan A before, no Plan B now.
Olympic silver medalist Bob “Buddha” Billingham is the man on the ground for America’s Cup Race Management and its interface with the piers projects. He describes the Tuesday groundbreaking at Piers 27-29 as, “Ceremonial. They knocked a hole in a wall, and the tenant on the other side hadn’t even vacated yet.” So what’s the deal? “The real work starts on March 1 at 27-29. As for seismic work on 30-32, the contracts have been signed.”
So we’re off to the races.
America’s Cup 34 is the biggest gamble ever undertaken in the name of sailboat racing. Imagine any other sport being turned on its head to the tune of new equipment, new rules, new capabilities, all in one stroke. No guarantees, but if this works, it’s a new day at the high end of sailing, a new day for a revered competition that has defined yacht racing, for the public, for more than a century. For better and sometimes for ill. Watch closely. A grand adventure is unfolding before your eyes.
There is continuing discussion around a format that would see a best-of-three-short-races format earning one point. As in, a match race format between two boats where one boat wins the day by winning two of three short races. This will almost certainly be tested in AC45 racing this year. Murray said on Wednesday that it possibly, “could be carried over to Louis Vuitton Cup racing in 2013.” Advocates see it as a workout for the crews, but with a greater fairness because one dumb mistake, or one piece of bad luck, does not seal the day. This will shake out as we get closer to America’s Cup 34, and however that plays—
“I don’t see San Francisco being disappointed at all,” Murray says. “From August of this year you’ll be seeing people moving here to take up residence and support their boats. And whether it’s eight challengers or three challengers this will be heady stuff. As the defending Australian team in 1987, we practiced for years before we raced in Perth [Murray was the designer/skipper of the defending 12-Meter, Kookaburra] and even with those years of practice we had spinnakers under boats, you name it. Now we’re looking at boats that will be going four times those speeds, manned by quality teams, spending a lot of hours racing. No, I don’t see San Francisco being disappointed at all.”
The winner of more 18-foot skiff championships than anybody, a onetime Defender of the America’s Cup, a successful designer, boat manufacturer and waterfront developer, Iain Murray is one of the few humans qualified to take the helm of America’s Cup Race Management. Photo by Gilles Martin-Raget/ACEA
We should see Oracle Racing’s first AC72 sailing on San Francisco Bay in July, as soon as it is legal under the Protocol to sail. Challenger of Record Artemis will be here by September. Others will follow quickly, because, for an AC72, this is the only place to be.
Will all four of the “could build” teams get funded to go ahead? I wouldn’t bet on that. Will all four of them fail? I wouldn’t bet on that, either. Did I mention, the America’s Cup is going to be fine?
FLEET RACING FOR CHALLENGERS IN THE LOUIS VUITTON CUP
Not much fleet, racing, but a first. Three days of fleet racing, July 5-7, to launch this thing with a maximum visual punch. No two ways about it, fleet racing has been more exciting to watch than match racing on the AC45 circuit. With the 72-footers in an opener on San Francisco Bay, the visuals have the potential to be all-timers. The points on the table are small, however. I’d figure that, in traffic, all the teams will be sailing with caution, because winning the fleet racing is only a tiny step toward becoming the 34th Challenger for the America’s Cup.
And the schedule for 2013 racing is . . . right here.