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use your illusion

We proudly present our newest feature – a monthly column from the very accomplished Olympic, AC and World Champion sailor Kevin Hall. This is proudly brought to you by Mauri Pro Sailing.

Hi! I’d like to invite you to join my contest. It’s a sort of a race. Ready… set… go! Oh. You want some rules? Hang on. We’ll get to that. I’m winning already. Pardon? You say you need rules to decide whether or not to play? No you don’t. You just need to trust me.

It’s a fancy race. Does that help? You still need more info? It has driven men to obsession, and some might even say, murder. Now do you want to play? You do? Great. Sign here.

Entree fee? Of course, that’s where the contest really shines. You commit to paying more than you have, and then I raise the price. Sounds good? I knew you’d say yes. Wait. Pardon? When is it? That’s on a need to know basis. You don’t. See you there, then!

One more thing. People have been dedicating their lives to this contest for over a hundred years. You cast yourself into illustrious company just by saying you would like to know more. Congratulations.

I’m one of those people. I bet on the most recent contest, which was foolish. I have a trusted friend who told me not long before the final races that if he were forced to bet, he would bet x on team A and x + y on team B, but he would never bet the house on either, that would simply be too risky. I should have listened. I bought a house once I made my personal bet. I didn’t necessarily bet with my heart, though. That might have been a different bet, one can never be sure until the money is with the bookie.

For about two weeks, it seemed I had made a foolish bet. Then it started to seem an epic tale was unfolding. Then, right at the very end, the other team won and I said to myself, “see, you knew all along” as I stood on my new balcony looking out at the race course on San Francisco Bay.

You want to know what happened? Well, let’s get one thing out of the way early. The winner writes the history books. Not that this is a bad thing, necessarily, but it’s the truth. Neither Stalin nor Churchill’s memoirs would read the same if the other guys had won the war. Maybe this seems obvious to you. I believe it bears remembering.

Back to our contest. I’d like you to imagine what the rest of my tale might be, if the time limit on September 20 had been 42 minutes, and not 40. What’s that? You say rules are rules? OK, then imagine instead that sometime after lunch somebody turned the wind a little further to the left, and made it blow a knot or two harder. You don’t like to imagine somebody messing with the script? Then this isn’t the contest for you. You should leave now.

People often ask me my personal opinion about whether Emirates Team New Zealand choked. They remind me that they are asking for a personal opinion, and that they are aware of this, when I am reluctant to respond. They tell me, “but you are in such an interesting position to comment, having raced with them in the finals of the 2007 America’s Cup, and then watching this race so closely, from that house you bought when you bet on the results.”

“OK then, fair point. Why don’t I go ahead and tell you my personal opinion. It’s worth far less than you would be willing to pay for it” the cliche goes. The short answer is heck no, they didn’t. Oracle Team USA almost did, but they didn’t either. Maybe if we were discussing a tennis match with one court, played on one day, by the same two people, and one of them was on match point for nine straight races, maybe then I would be willing to suggest that particular loser choked. I’m not very good at tennis, though, so you would have to drag it out of me.

But how can you say that? Just one race. They only needed to win one race! I hear you asking. Let’s loop back to a little more understanding of the contest, before we continue. If you want to win, first you need to be able to show up to the start line in an AC72. Not an AC71, not an AC72 which doesn’t satisfy the rules which make it an AC72. This is harder than it sounds. At least we’re not arguing about that.

The one you show up in needs to make it around the track, day in, day out. Maybe for 19 days of racing. Before that, if you’re silly enough to be a Challenger, it needs to make it around the track for a couple months of exhibition sailing. This requirement drove Emirates Team New Zealand to make a few choices that Oracle could afford to fly closer to the sun about. None of this is news, it can just be good to keep in mind.

Backing up, Oracle’s head start in design IP of winged multihulls was measured in years. Some decisions each team needed to make about their AC72, fundamental ones about the structural topology, about load cases, about balance, those needed to be made so far in advance it’s closer to throwing a dart. Oracle, with their experience with USA17, was able to sneak the dart board quite a bit closer before throwing. Pardon? You say this has nothing to do with deciding whether ETNZ choked in the America’s Cup? You are entitled to your opinion, this is mine remember. This head start is one BMW Oracle had earned by winning the 2010 America’s Cup. The history of intrigue about Defender deck-stacking is riveting. It doesn’t fit here. Everyone who signs up for the contest knows that is part of it. It always will be. When they tell you it isn’t anymore, be sure to be skeptical. It makes no sense for that part of the contest to disappear. There are other contests for people who don’t like to compete against a stacked deck. Perhaps that is what makes winning the America’s Cup so astonishing.

I will now digress, significantly. Trust me, there’s a point. Sometime in the training leading up to the 2007 America’s Cup, we were out two boat testing in 84 and 92. One sunny day, Alinghi had to cut their sailing short – they had broken a rudder, it appeared and was later confirmed. For a brief moment, there was an obvious, and perhaps justifiable, feeling of superiority – we were training, they were towing in. I am guessing that they generated information from that breakage, which allowed them to build the next rudder to finer tolerances, driven by a better understanding of the actual use cases. If they never broke a rudder, that gain would have remained theoretical. We didn’t break much of anything, ever, during the whole campaign. This was a wise strategy for many reasons. We had a good showing in the final, we were the better prepared racing team, started better, and sailed well. They were a bit faster, a little aero here, a fraction more weight in the bulb there. It doesn’t take much of an edge, just an edge.

Maybe we should have broken more things you say? The problem was the same then as it was in September. We had to prevail in the Louis Vuitton before having a crack at the finals. So we had to be able to race, and we had to be able to train.

Fast forward to more recent times. Emirates Team New Zealand invented stable flight, invented the foiling catamaran gybe, and got to within a home stretch reach of winning the 2013 America’s Cup. In spite of all the vagaries, chicanes, and shenanigans of the contest. It is difficult to imagine getting any closer without prevailing. Then, just in time, Oracle Team USA dug themselves out of a remarkably deep hole of various adversities. Did Oracle Team USA choke? Not exactly. Did Emirates Team New Zealand? No, they didn’t. Even a simple plane crash is unlikely to have one, root cause. Everything leading up to it occurs in a context. Boiling the final few races down to isolated binary events which can be analyzed in terms of right/wrong, good/bad, win/choke, is not what the America’s Cup is about. We love it so much, because it gives us the powerful illusion that it is.

Comment here.

December 2nd, 2013

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