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When Sailors Collectively Bargain

Posted By Megan Morgan, Wednesday, March 1, 2017

In January the defenders and challengers of the oldest trophy in international sporting competition, the Americas Cup, gathered to announce rules framework that would govern not the upcoming race, but the following two competitions, to take place in 2019 and 2021. That THIS competition, of all the sports across the globe, just locked in its rules in any fashion, let alone for multiple challenges before the current Cup has been contested is a complete departure from 165 years of tradition – one that will serve the sport very well.

There may be no single competition which throughout its history, and especially over the past three decades, has benefited from the gamut of technology, adeptly exploited innovations, and applied advanced analytics across the spectrum as well as the Americas Cup teams have.  From the earliest races, boat designers would manipulate the “maximum waterline” regulation by creating hull shapes that would meet the requirement when at rest, but have much longer waterlines when heeled over in the wind.  Such boat design wars took a quantum leap forward in 1987 when Dennis Conner’s team from the San Diego Yacht Club famously entered a catamaran into the competition, as multihulls were not expressly prohibited by the cup trust deed.

To grossly oversimply, the way the Americas Cup works is that the reigning champion sets the rules for the next cup challenge – including the location of the race, the specs of the boats, the dates of the race(s), the terms of the competition, etc.  There is also only one official challenger to the current cup holder, so the terms must be set for the field of challengers to face off and determine who will go forth to race for the cup.  Imagine if, after the 2016 Super Bowl, the Denver Broncos declared that the 2016 regular season would be played seven-on-seven until the playoffs and then it would be back to 11-man teams?

Over the past quarter century Americas Cup boat builders have tapped into every material science advantage to make the boats lighter, faster, and stronger; they have tested every conceivable coating; they have looked at endless designs for sails and now rigid wings.  With the addition of hydrofoils, when the hulls are out of the water, drag is reduced so much that the boats can actually sail faster than the wind that is powering them.  This is not to say that technological advancement has been smooth sailing.  At almost every turn, the innovator has inevitably found himself in court.  The first synthetic hull was challenged, the first multihull was challenged, and the shape and size of virtually every part of the boat was protested by someone at some point over the past 160 years.

As for sailing the boat well, the analysts and tacticians on an Americas Cup team are no different than the analytics departments in any other team sport.  What they analyze is.  They gather all the environmental data for the race course: wind patterns, tide, temperature, etc., and combine all of that with the properties of the boat to generate an attack strategy for the course.  During the 2013 Americas Cup, Oracle Team USA, on the brink of elimination, down 8-1 to Team New Zealand, mounted the greatest comeback in sports history to win eight straight races and win the cup 9-8 in San Francisco Bay.  Part of the reason Team USA was in that hole is that there was a glitch in one of their modelling programs, not allowing for an attack strategy that charted a longer but faster course.  Stu Woo for the Wall Street Journal chronicles the comeback in detail here.

The eleven members of the boat’s crew are as well conditioned and trained as any group of world-class athletes.  Their playing field is a seven ton, 72-foot-long, 46-foot-wide, 131-foot-tall, carbon-fiber and trampoline-like net…that moves, in three dimensions, on water.  Oh, and the eleven people on the team are responsible for moving the boat, and moving it precisely.  Further, the migration from monohulls to catamarans means that grinders aren’t working hard for a minute or two and moving over a couple of feet until the next tack.  Now they cross the 45-foot trampoline while it is moving at speeds up to 40 knots.  They are “putting out high wattage for up to 40 minutes,” according to Paul Cayard, a veteran AC helmsman.  The conditioning needed for an Americas Cup race was compared to “playing a half of rugby union without the contact and running,” in this New York Times examination of what it takes to train to sail Americas Cup.

Among the biggest beneficiaries to the announcement that the Americas Cup will be sailed under a known set of guidelines for the next two additional races are the “small market” challengers.  Under the old system, the holder of the cup in setting the parameters for the next race could (and has) prescribe a boat design that is essentially cost prohibitive under the timeline for anyone but the wealthiest of sponsors to even entertain commissioning.  There is no doubt that the challenger series for both 2019 and 2021 will see additional teams enter for the right to officially challenge for the oldest international sporting trophy in the world, the Americas Cup.  This is better for competitive sailors, better for fans, and better for sponsors and markets who host the challenger series races.


Watch this space later this summer for facts and news from AC35 as Oracle Team USA defends their title on the Great Sound of Bermuda.

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