America's Cup Diary - June 2007
If Chris Dickson never wins the America's Cup, it will be because he wanted it too much. Elite athletes and sports psychologists talk about ‘optimum level of arousal' - getting excited enough to get the adrenalin flowing, not getting so excited that the adrenalin floods the system and you lose mental and physical control. Despite the presence of a full-time psychologist at the BMW Oracle base in Valencia, Dickson has not yet learned to achieve that optimum level of arousal.
From a dominant performance in the early phases of the Louis Vuitton Cup, with Dickson steering USA 98 beautifully and conquering (almost) all before him, the surprise package of Luna Rossa in the Semi Finals sent the Kiwi's optimum arousal levels off the top of the graph. Cynics around Port America's Cup had long predicted that BMW Oracle would implode, and so it proved.
Napoleon-like, the increasingly grim-faced Dickson refused to acknowledge the fact that he was being severely outgunned and outmanoeuvred by the ruthless young Australian helmsman on the Italian boat, James Spithill. Only when the American team was one defeat away from elimination did team owner Larry Ellison finally do what Dickson in his role of CEO should have done himself - remove Dickson from his other roles of skipper and helmsman.
For the final race tactician Gavin Brady stepped up to the skipper's role and B boat driver from Denmark Sten Mohr took the wheel. It was all too little too late, and Spithill made mincemeat of the new afterguard in the pre-start, taking Luna Rossa to a decisive victory.
The press conference that evening would be the last time we would see Dickson in Valencia. It was a brave performance, but a dewy-eyed Dickson refused to acknowledge that he had bitten off more than he could chew, with what amounted to three separate jobs as CEO, skipper and helmsman. The team press release that morning suggested that Dickson had taken himself off the boat but he was keen to make it known that the decision had not been his.
"The decision to take me off the boat today was Larry's decision and that was his call to make, he's the owner. Nobody did a bad job on our team." Well, not quite nobody. It was true that BMW Oracle was looking a very formidable package, both technically and in the sailing team. Dickson was the glue that held it altogether, but when the glue passed breaking point, the team disintegrated with alarming speed.
It came as no surprise when Dickson fell on his sword a few days later, preferring to return to New Zealand with his family rather than work out the final three months of his contract with BMW Oracle. I wonder what lessons he will take from Valencia, what moments in the competition will come back to haunt him as missed opportunities. Will he ever acknowledge his own pivotal role in the failure of the team?
This was the ultimate ‘no excuses' team, a team that wanted for nothing with an owner who was prepared to spent whatever it would take to win the America's Cup. In the early stages USA 98 looked unstoppable. Gavin Brady couldn't speak highly enough of the boat, or of his skipper's ability to drive it. "The first thing you do is you jump on a boat and work on minimising your weaknesses. It might have a really good fast mode or really high mode, but you don't often get both. The nice thing with 98 is she seems to have both.
"My feeling is, if I was racing 98, and asked myself how I'd exploit her, well, she's quite a formidable boat - she goes high, she goes low, she accelerates, she doesn't stall. She's an all-round nice boat. I've never seen it all come together before so nicely, the whole package. It's four years of a lot of money, a lot of development, good people.
"USA 98 has options, has modes, and one of the biggest features is Chris Dickson drives the boat extremely well. He's very dialled in right now. I don't think anyone is steering their boat as fast as Chris.
"He's very confident with the boat. 98 is one thing, but having Chris Dickson drive it is the number one factor, it's that package. He has a really good feel for the load on the rudder, that relationship is quite special. I've personally never been on a boat where we feel we're the only people that could screw it up for 98."
Brady was probably right. We will never know just how good USA 98 was, but she could claim to be perhaps the fastest challenger yacht in Port America's Cup, arguably the greatest match for Alinghi's new-generation boats SUI 91 and SUI 100. It's amazing that for a challenge where sensible estimates of the team budget vary between $120m and $200m, that something as simple as a breakdown in communication lay at the heart of BMW Oracle's decline.
It became increasingly apparent that Dickson was not heeding the calls of his tactician or strategist, or of the weather team. It was a return to the problems of the previous Oracle campaign in Auckland where the Americans had led Alinghi in five of the six races but went down 5-1 in the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals. Crew members say that Dickson would ignore the advice of the afterguard then, and on TV footage you could hear Cameron Dunn at the top of the mast doing weather spotting, saying, "If you're not going to listen to me then you might as well get me down from here."
The first sign of strange behaviour in Valencia was the final match of the Round Robin series between BMW Oracle and Emirates Team New Zealand. This showdown would decide which of these teams would win the Round Robin overall, and earn the right to select their Semi Final opponent. Up the first beat, the Kiwis opted for the right of the course, the Americans for the left. A massive split developed as neither team flinched. Eventually the Kiwis tacked - into a 20-degree right-hand windshift and an increase in breeze. Within two minutes the New Zealanders had leapt to a lead of more than 250 metres and they were never troubled after that. They won the right to choose their next opponent, Desafio Espanol.
By default, BMW Oracle was handed a tougher opponent in Luna Rossa, although such was USA 98's impressive record to date that few gave the Italians much of hoping of taking more than a race or two off the Americans.
Where the Italians were expected to be dangerous, however, was in the pre-start. So it proved, with young Australian James Spithill cementing his reputation as the most skilled and aggressive starter in the business. He was all over Dickson like a rash.
No bother, though. USA 98 would have the legs to sail around the outside of the inferior ITA 94. Or so we thought. After getting very little two-boat testing done in a Valencian winter that produced either too much or too little wind for sailing, the Italians had been staying out after racing during the Round Robins to develop their speed. As the Semi Final played out, it became increasingly apparent that ITA 94 was the match of USA 98 in most departments.
According to a team member in the American camp, when BMW Oracle lost the first match of the series, Dickson vented his anger in no small way. From that moment on, Dickson's self control abandoned him, and his ability to steer and manoeuvre the boat seeped away. If the crew already knew the writing was on the wall, navigator Peter Isler did a great job of disgusing the team's inner turmoil when he was sent to face the 300-strong press conference every evening.
However, the moment where it became publicly clear that Dickson had exceeded his optimum level of arousal was in the fifth match when he found himself boxed out to the left-hand side of the start box, shut out in ‘coffin corner'. To get stuck out here is a schoolboy error, something that you just don't see at the America's Cup. Without any rights, Dickson tried to gybe across Spithill's bow.
It wasn't even a near-miss, Spithill could have struck USA 98 smack amidships. Such was the extent of the error, the umpires gave Dickson a red-flag penalty which means it must be taken as soon as possible. However, just 20 seconds later, as both boats crossed the line on port tack with ITA 94 to windward, Dickson jerked the wheel to leeward, resulting in USA 98's stern scoop swinging up to windward and thwacking into the side of ITA 94. It was a suicidal act of defiance, and Dickson must have known he was about to incur a second penalty the moment he spun the wheel.
Dickson's behaviour in the latter stages of the Louis Vuitton Cup was beyond comprehension. It has been the talking point of Valencia. Perhaps a tattoo on his shoulder provides as good an answer as we will ever get. It is the tattoo of a scorpion, a dangerous creature which when surrounded by fire, so the myth goes, commits suicide by stinging itself to death. Spithill provided the fire, Dickson did the rest.
The Kiwis were vindicated in their choice of Desafio Espanol in a much more predictable Semi Final. That said, the Spanish made the most of their opportunities in the pre-start, with Polish helmsman Karol Jablonski succeeded in upsetting Dean Barker on a number of occasions. The home team were delighted simply to have made it to the final four, so if they could take a race off Emirates Team New Zealand they would be delighted. In fact they won two matches, and each time the celebrations were as though they had won the America's Cup itself.
Eventually the solid, workmanlike Kiwis proved too much for the plucky Spaniards, and in the big waves and 18-knot breezes of what would prove to be the final match of the series, NZL 92 looked a very formidable beast, much steadier and more powerful than the more tender-looking ESP 97. The taciturn Kiwis crossed the finish line to take their Semi Final with a solid but not entirely convincing score of 5-2. The Spanish asked more questions of the New Zealand team than might have been expected. James Spithill and Luna Rossa are likely to ask many more questions.
Whereas the Kiwis like to sail a tight match, using the traditional weapons of covering your opponent and aggressive boat-on-boat racing, the Brazilian tactician on Luna Rossa, five-time Olympic medallist Torben Grael, occasionally likes to go walkabout on the race course. He is not averse to breaking away from the opposition when he has the feeling of better breeze elsewhere, which makes Grael a very difficult and frustrating opponent. Whoever emerges as the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup will have won an intriguing contest of contrasting styles. But what remains unclear is whether the eventual Challenger will be able to put up much of a fight against Alinghi in the America's Cup.