So far, the 34th America's Cup, the first one on U.S. shores since 1995, has felt like a test run and a dizzying, confusing one at that.
It opened smoothly enough on July 4 amid international and local fanfare celebrating the arrival of the world's most important sailing competition onto the San Francisco Bay ("the fastest boats, the best sailors," is the event's tagline). But soon after, ill-winds, literally and figuratively, set in, as they had for months. A corny metaphor yes, but, in this case, apt.
What's the Sound of One Boat Racing?
Wind conditions prompted the cancellation of the event's "pageant" on the second day, when the four competing teams were to parade their technologically cutting-edge 72 ft. racing catamarans along the water. The following day, when the first race was set to occur, Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge team refused to participate, as a protest around a proposed last-minute rule change. This meant that Emirates Team New Zealand ran the first competition by itself.
That was weird enough until New Zealand ran the course alone again in the second contest because Sweden's Artemis Racing team was still rebuilding its boat after it capsized in a practice run on May 9, killing one of its crew men, Andrew Simpson. The problems with the Artemis boat resulted in Luna Rossa also competing unopposed. Since then, New Zealand and Italy have run more solo "races."
No Real Races, No Crowds
By the end of opening weekend, the only possible collective response was "Really?" and the crowds stayed away. The staff within the America's Cup Park, the finish line enclave built on the Bay specifically for the "summer of racing," was trying hard to maintain enthusiasm as they scrambled to look busy.
By the end of the first week, the America's Cup Village staff members at the Marina Green, the America's Cup outpost stationed near the beginning of the race course, were checking smart phones and chatting among themselves to fill time as customers were scarce. If someone asked a question, three America's Cup staff members responded. These were people hungry for something to do.
Finally, last weekend -- nine days after opening -- the first competition with two boats actually took place as scheduled. Thousands of spectators lined the shore of the iconic race course, which begins against the stunning backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, passes Alcatraz and finishes around the bend at the America's Cup Park. The day was gorgeous, and the boats were impressive when, as promised, they lifted off the water, as if they were flying. Except, it wasn't really much of a contest after all, as Emirates New Zealand so out performed Luna Rossa that the boats -- once again -- appeared to race mostly alone.
Reality Sets In
Now, bars, cafes and food booths are considering toying with or even cutting back menus. Louis Vuitton, a 30-year sponsor of the nine-week phase of challenger competitions, dubbed the Louis Vuitton Cup, demanded the return of $3 million of its sponsorship money. Artemis broke the negative momentum with some good news, estimating that the boat would be ready to sail by this weekend. But they still may need to compete under a special dispensation that all the teams have yet to agree upon.
Meanwhile, the winds are still a factor. If they blow too high before or during the race, officials will cancel the contest or immediately stop it if it is underway. Now, San Francisco's winds are so unpredictable that you can walk the street enjoying a summer day, then four blocks and five minutes later take a right turn and feel like autumn is approaching early. No one advised the America's Cup about San Francisco's summer weather? Good luck with that.
At this point, the America's Cup seems to be making it up as it goes along, with the Louis Vuitton Cup more like a barely organized dress rehearsal for September when the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup will race against local billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA.
If this is true, what a waste. The America's Cup has much to offer immediately for locals and visitors.
New and Good on the Bay
The America's Cup Park has brought to life Piers 27 and 29, a part of San Francisco's Embarcadero that was all but dormant. Inside the Park, The Sports Bar, the Flute Bar with Mumm's Champagne tastings, a New Zealand's Moa beer bar, the Nespresso Café and the Napa Valley Wine bar have set up in different, creative seating indoor/outdoor environments, some with water views. One of Auckland's top chefs opened on-site a first-rate New Zealand-influenced, six-month pop-up restaurant, the Waiheke Island Yacht Club.
There are areas for kids, performance spaces for the free bands, shops with America's Cup and Louis Vuitton athletic gear, and the America's Cup Pavilion, a new 9,000-seat waterside facility with twenty big-name concerts scheduled. Oh yes, and the super yachts are lolling along the pier. Completely cool or ostentatious display of wealth? You choose.
The Marina Green's America's Cup Village serves as a casual version of the Park and both areas contain exhibits that explain the America's Cup and racing.
The entire event, which continues through September 21, happens on one of the most spectacular water-meets-land strips in North America and it is free to enter. Once in, you can hear people complaining about the prices. ($5.50 for a cappuccino?)
Nonetheless, without handing over even a dollar, euro, pound or yen, anyone can stand along the race course edge and watch these state-of-the-art boats sail closer to shore than in any other America's Cup.
We will know more about how the Louis Vuitton Cup Challenger series will fare probably by the end of this week. Artemis needs to race. Luna Rossa has to step up its game. And two boat competitions have to be the rule not the exception.
Yet, despite the in-fighting, local indifference, bad luck and, perhaps most specifically, Ellison's decision to race with the untested, expensive 72 ft. catamarans that excluded many competitors and pushed the safety limits, this is the world's premier sailing event.
The San Francisco America's Cup just needs to start acting like one.
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