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September 17, 2013 9:30 AM Why No One Watches the America’s Cup Races

By Michael O'Hare

Hey, the famous America’s Cup Yacht Races are happening right now in San Francisco Bay! Hey, really, is that exciting or what; you can watch this immortal series, cheer for your favorite boats, see thrilling…are you listening to me? Is anyone watching?

What a bust. The Chronicle loyally slips an annoying page-and-a-half sheet about it over the front page every day, that I have to peel off and discard. I have not heard a word of conversation about it anywhere and I don’t know anyone who has a clue who’s winning. Or knows who’s even racing except Larry Ellison, whose brainchild this stinker was and who is spending $80m to put two of the boats in the water. Fifteen teams have shrunk to four, and the hopes of the city making money have evaporated.

What happened here is that Ellison (and the whole arrangement, including the design of the boats that would compete, is his call) completely misunderstood what’s important about the sport, and what’s not. What he thought was important, and would gin up public engagement with the sport, was going fast, so the boats, if you can call them that, are enormously expensive catamarans with rigid airfoil sails and hydrofoils that can lift the hulls out of the water. Wow, they really go fast! But they don’t have any of the tradition of real sailing; no spinnakers or even Genoa jibs (at least not in any pictures I’ve seen yet) to balloon out on downwind legs and change at the turn, practically no rigging, no worrying about luffing. Most important, they have nothing to do with what constitutes sailing for people who sail, whether dinghies or ocean racers. They are capable of nothing except course racing: they have no cabins, you can’t sail them to anywhere or take your friends out for a weekend trip, and they are extremely dangerous in unprotected waters (trimarans and catamarans have, last time I talked to a sailor, a very bad record of leaving port and not coming home). One of these even killed someone right on the bay earlier this summer.

But they go really fast. Here is where Ellison got it wrong, because extremely fast is what power hydroplanes do even better, and make more noise doing it – got a lot of friends who follow that sport? Losing the culture, aesthetics, and spirit of yachting to just go fast is sort of like trying to make music better by playing it louder with a bigger amp, or “improving marksmanship” by putting lots of processing power into the rifle. Ellison browbeat and bullied everyone into playing a game by rules amusing to him, and in the end almost nobody came, nobody is watching, and nobody cares.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
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