America's Cup Diary - June 2006
"Look at my size!" is the favourite phrase of my three-year-old son, who believes that at 3 feet tall and around 15 kilos that he is going up in the world. "Look at my size! Look how big I am," he tells his father with great pride. The same phrase comes to mind when I see the grandiose bases built by the big teams in the America's Cup. The headquarters are a homage to the vision and ambition of their owners. If you wanted to come up with a form guide for the Louis Vuitton Cup and America's Cup Finals next year, the respective size of the 12 teams' recently-constructed headquarters would be a pretty good start. Simply take your tape measure (albeit a very long tape measure) and calculate the square meterage of each base. The bigger the area, the further up the pecking order they sit.
Around the northern edge of Port America's Cup are ranged the wealthier teams, Alinghi, BMW Oracle and Luna Rossa. On the south side the smaller teams are clustered, with United Internet Team Germany's base still a building site and China Team and Victory Challenge with much work to do before they can truly consider their new bases as ‘home'. Admittedly, the north/south divide is not quite that clearly delineated. Along Billionaires Row, sandwiched between the mighty Alinghi and BMW Oracle citadels are two gatecrashers, Shosholoza and +39 Challenge. And on Skid Row, in among the favelas you will find an enormous and very green palace for Desafio Espanol, along with a very functional and no-frills castle for the pragmatic Kiwis.
Not surprisingly for a team owned by Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli, the most stylish base is Luna Rossa's. The entire exterior is clad in old America's Cup sails, and the Kevlar/Mylar wallpaper makes for a striking appearance. You just want to go up to it and touch it, and run your hands long it, which is indeed what many passers-by do. From the outside, the glassy frontage of BMW Oracle's base is reminiscent of an upmarket car showroom. But go up the escalator to the top floor and you find yourself in very plush surroundings. Most impressive of all is the in-house cinema, capable of seating almost a hundred people. By day it is used for corporate presentations, team meetings and media briefings. At 6pm the sailors' kids come in to watch Star Wars and later in the evening it is the grown-ups' turn for some Pulp Fiction or Brokeback Mountain.
Actually, thinking about it, Star Wars is quite an apt movie for a team that to some is known as the Evil Empire. Last year, BMW Oracle was the team that everyone loved to hate and Chris Dickson was Darth Vader. However, this year Dickson has been noticeably more affable and the team has thrown open the doors of its base to both the media and sailors from other teams. At the end of Louis Vuitton Act 10, all the sailors were invited for a knees-up at the American team's HQ for as much food and drink as they could consume. The plan is to make these sailors' parties a regular thing. There is a charm offensive going on, and it is working. Darth Vader appears to have turned away from the dark side.
The thing that is striking about the bigger bases is the sense of permanence about them. It is unbelievable to imagine that they have been constructed for less than two years' use. Whether or not the signal is intentional, the signal you get is that Alinghi and BMW Oracle believe the Cup will remain in Valencia beyond 2007. The rumour mill suggests that if Alinghi does successfully defend the Cup, the next event will take place in quick succession, perhaps 2009. That would imply holding the event for another cycle in the existing ACC boats, which by most people's reckoning are beginning to appear very dated.
That said, they are very exciting to sail on board, as I had the privilege of discovering during the Acts back in 2004. Sailing on board +39 Challenge I was engaged in a radio commentary duel with my colleague and rival, Matt Sheahan, on board China Team. We were blessed with a very tight match with many place changes throughout, and at one point I let my professional guard drop and some very spontaneous Anglo-Saxon phrases to spill out on the airwaves when I thought I was going to squashed by the bow of China Team, while cowering in the stern scoop of +39's boat.
These days, getting an 18th man spot you have to be a little bit special, a knight or a lord of the realm for example, or even a king. King Juan Carlos rode aboard Desafio Espanol during the match racing, while Lord Sebastian Coe and Sir Keith Mills rode as 18th men during the fleet racing. Aside from becoming a double Olympic Champion in middle-distance running during the 1980s, Lord Coe has become better known in recent years for his victory - along with Sir Keith Mills - in securing the 2012 Olympic Games for London. So their presence in Valencia got tongues wagging that perhaps the big men were moving on to their next big sports project, to launch a new British challenge for the America's Cup next time round. Total speculation on my part, but they certainly have the credibility to make it happen.
Meanwhile, with 18th man places becoming increasingly hard to come by, I leapt at the chance of going out for a day's spectating inside the windward mark during the fleet racing. Known simply as the ‘Big Round Buoy', it is like no windward mark you have ever seen. Around 3 metres in diameter, up to five or six people can stand inside it and enjoy impossibly close views of the action. I refer to it as the ‘Donut of Death', and you would understand why if you saw 12 boats - or 500 tons of carbon and metal - piling towards you at 10 knots.
The day I ventured into the donut it was during the fleet racing of Louis Vuitton Act 11. The wind was blowing 14 knots and the left-hand side of the course was marginally favoured. This meant that when the fleet reached the windward mark, there were some boats coming in from the traditional and safer starboard layline while others were chancing their luck from the port layline - hoping to dive through a gap in the traffic if such a gap existed. If no gap did exist, the helmsman has a choice of hitting either another boat or the much squishier and softer Donut. Luckily we're talking about the best helmsmen in the world, and even when no gaps existed the port-tackers still found a way through without collision.
The view you get from the Donut is incredibly close. You can see right into the cockpit, you can see the whites of the sailors' eyes and you can hear every creak and groan as the sails are eased away for the downwind leg. It brings the racing alive in a way that watching from a distant spectator boat never can.