Yesterday was a Sunday just like any Sunday during football season here in San Francisco. I had made my way down to my current favorite sports bar in town, where I had joined a group of friends to take part in that time honored tradition of drinking beers and yelling at the television. Because, of course, they can hear us. Yesterday was a particularly unruly mob, and by 2:30 we were in full voice, culminating in a raucous cheer as the home team won in unexpected fashion.
And right there I lost you, since you know as well as I that the 49ers lost yesterday. However, this particular unruly mob, in this particular sports bar, was screaming their heads off over a sailboat race. And that is something that I never thought I would see (or hear) in my life.
Months ago, when I first started writing these columns, my first interview was with Oracle Team USA CEO Russell Coutts. He laid out his vision of where the event, and indeed the sport, could go. Boats that looked like NASCAR racecars, went faster than anything that had been seen before in the Cup, a racecourse with boundaries, and television helicopters flying overhead beaming it all into America's living rooms.
It was an audacious vision for what the event could become, and I have to admit part of me thought he had hit his head once too often. Grant Dalton from the New Zealand team went even further. "It's all very easy to want it to be a television sport and say it is going to be, but in my view it is not a television sport," he said months ago. "And in my lifetime and probably the next lifetime its not going to be a television sport."
At the time I found it hard to argue with him. I have sailed most of my life, but I will admit I didn't watch any of the races from the previous Cup. The speed of the boats, the complexities of the strategy, and the difficult in understanding the wind and waves just seem too much for the small screen. As much as I wanted it to be true, I was siding with Dalton at the beginning.
So how did I find myself in a crowded bar that burst into applause every time the American boat spun around a turning mark in first place? I think a few things have transpired over the last month to pull off this miracle. First, as more and more people met the crew from Oracle, the more realized they were not the "rich people" that detractors kept mentioning. Yes, the America's Cup syndicates are owned by rich people, but last I checked that is true for every professional sports team in America, except the Green Bay Packers.
As the crew started showing up, two realizations slowly dawned on the city. First, these are really cool, fun people. Shannon Falcone can take over a room in a matter of moments and have people laughing their heads off. Rome Kirby is the (now) lone American, an enthusiastic force on the boat whose excitement about racing on these 72-foot space ships is contagious. Skipper Jimmy Spithill is the intense and yet self-deprecating Aussie who, like Joe Montana or Magic Johnson, has that ability to make everyone around him better.
Once you get to know them, this is a pretty easy group to root for, And then when people meet them, the second realization hits. Jesus, these guys are huge! Walk up to Falcone or Jono Macbeth, and any previous assumption of what a sailor looks like goes right out the door. I watched kids this weekend look up at them as the team marched to their boat during Dock Out, with a combination of awe and bewilderment. One turned to his dad and announced that he thought they looked like ninjas.
I look back on that first meeting with Coutts, and realize only now how many things they got right. Yes, they over shot on the 72-footers, but they have accomplished almost everything they set out to do. Amazing television? Check? Crowds on the waterfront? Check. Exciting racing? Check and double check.
This last part is the most surprising to my fellow sailors and me. The idea of match racing between catamarans seemed like a recipe for disaster, and very likely comas as people feel asleep during maneuvers. After all, traditionally catamarans go like stink in a straight line, but you can time their turns with a sundial. None of us saw the future, 72-foot catamarans doing 20 knot plus turns on foils. And the maneuvering has actually been the best it has ever been in the Cup. Lead changes have happened up and down the course during almost every race of these finals. A major concern of the boundaries was that they would remove "passing lanes" from the course, and the boat that was in front would stay there for the entire race.
Instead, the boundaries have forced the leading boat to give up position when they don't want to, bringing them back into the middle of the course and back into range of the trailing boat. And all of this is happening right in front of thousands of people on the City waterfront.
Turns out Russell was on to something after all After the second race on Sunday, I had to text and congratulate him, not just on the victory, but on the day. Moments earlier the American defender had crossed the finish line and then swept directly towards the America's Park. Usually the boats cross the finish line, do a slow turn in the basin and then conduct their "fly by" of the Park at a controlled speed.
Not this time. This time Oracle blasted past the end of the pier at full power, her 130-foot wing sail with the American flag towering over the park, and the crowd cheering and taking pictures. My son was up on my shoulders yelling "woohoo!" as they shot past us. I put him down and looked at my phone, where there was a text from Russell: