Skip to main content

An open letter from Bill Koch

Image placeholder title

The 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco was originally planned and marketed as a magnificent show and a quantum leap forward for sailing into the new age of high technology and entertainment.

Russell Coutts, CEO of Oracle Team USA, had said the event would “meet the expectations of the Facebook generation, not the Flintstone generation.” The traditions of the Cup were going to be ignored, and a revolutionary event would be created that would rival the Super Bowl and soccer’s World Cup.

There would be a large number of competitors from around the world. It would be a grand event that would attract a lot of viewers and, therefore, sponsors. It was sure to succeed with the vision of Coutts — a five-time winner of the Cup — the resources of Larry Ellison and Oracle driving it, and the guidance of Richard Worth and Craig Thompson, sports marketing executives with European soccer experience.

Did the 34th America’s Cup live up to the organizer’s plans? In most cases, it fell far short. In a few cases, it greatly exceeded all expectations. The Red Bull Youth America’s Cup was a good contribution to the sport, but the value of this contribution is difficult to measure. The World Series was quite good and did a fine job of introducing 45-foot fixed-wing catamarans to the public. There was exciting competition close to shore, and it raised expectations for the Finals — imagine two 72-foot fixed-wing catamarans approaching each other at 50 knots.

Unfortunately, there was a cheating incident in the World Series by Oracle Team USA. Oracle had made illegal modifications to its AC45. This news surfaced right before the start of the Cup racing. It was referred to the jury, and something quite remarkable happened: The jury ruled against the defender. It disallowed several Oracle personnel from participating in this Cup and docked the team 2 points.

A lack of interest in and understanding of the importance of America’s Cup history by the first group of event managers was a significant loss of opportunity in marketing the event. The stories of the unusual and eccentric characters that have led Cup campaigns are far more interesting than the details of who tacked when in a race, and these were widely overlooked.

Another disappointment was the lack of nationality requirements. Oracle Team USA had only one (on occasion, two) Americans on the sailing crew. That is common in professional athletics but unusual in international competition, which the America’s Cup is supposed to be. As an American it is hard to root for a supposed American team that consists almost exclusively of Australians, Kiwis and Brits.

The biggest disappointment, however, was the lack of competitors in the challenger series. There were only three. In the six previous Cups there were seven to 13 challengers. This small number was the direct result of the high costs of mounting a campaign in the new boats: $100 million to $250 million.

The America’s Cup Park was a disaster averted. The city of San Francisco had committed to raising $32 million for it but did not reach that goal. Less than a year before the event, one of the buildings at the park caught fire. The event managers were well behind on the plan, so Russell Coutts replaced them with true professionals: Stephen Barclay, Mirko Groeschner and Bob Billingham. With a minimal amount of money — estimated to be between $10 million and $20 million — they got the park completed and operational on time.

A tragic event occurred that marred the image of the 34th America’s Cup. During practice May 9, Artemis Racing, the Swedish team, capsized its AC72, and Andrew Simpson, a two-time British Olympic medalist, was killed. This brought to the world’s attention how dangerous these yachts can be and caused numerous safety regulations to be adopted. These boats and crews are pushed to the limits, and I was told that many of the sailors are frightened to race them.

The attention to the dangers of these races, however, stimulated interest. In this regard, the Spanish have a relevant and realistic saying about human nature: “The only beast at a bullfight is the crowd.”

I spent three days in San Francisco for the Cup. Television commentator Gary Jobson was kind to invite me aboard the race committee boat. Viewing the races from the committee boat meant seeing only the start and top mark roundings because we could not in any way keep up with the racing yachts. It was still wonderful, and we watched other parts of the race on the TV monitor aboard the boat.

The overall TV coverage was magnificent. The only minor criticism I had was that in a few races, critical moments that occurred when a commercial was on were not replayed for the television audience.

Another impressive aspect of this Cup was the independent authority of the jury, umpires and race committee. The jury’s severe penalty against the defender for cheating in the World Series is unique in the history of America’s Cup racing. The umpires and race committee enforced the rules without bias.

The park worked out reasonably well. During the weekend races there were between 15,000 and 25,000 visitors. For the final race, the park had to close with 30,000. Weekday races were attended by a few thousand. The grandstands at Marina Green had only a few paying spectators because the price for a seat was so high.

The racing was very exciting, interesting and totally surprising. Most of us ex-sailors thought there would be a great difference in speed between Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA; after the first race, we would know who would win the Cup. We were half right: There was a significant difference in speed.

A comparison of the race statistics versus average wind speed shows that before Oracle’s adjustments to its boat after Race 5, the Kiwis were faster, independent of wind speed, on average 2.45 percent on time, 1.34 percent on average boat speed and 3.18 percent on top speed. After making changes, Oracle was faster 2.06 percent on time, 2.71 percent on average speed, and 2.67 percent on top speed.

How did Oracle make that dramatic turnaround, coming from behind 8-1 to win 9-8? Part of it has to do with foiling. In the early races the Kiwis were foiling almost constantly upwind, whereas Oracle was in and out of foiling. Once Oracle conquered foiling, particularly upwind, it became almost unbeatable. But it also made modifications to its boat.

What were the mysterious changes Oracle made? One theory is that they fitted an automatic control to their hydrofoil trim. In the aeronautical world it has long been known that the stability of a swept-back wing can be lost by uncontrolled yaw, leading to a dangerous “Dutch roll.” A device known as a “Little Herbie” was developed for the Boeing 747 more than 40 years ago to overcome the tendency to stall.

Stability Augmentation Systems, as these are now called, are equipped with sensors such as accelerometers and gyros, which can detect and instigate corrections to stability with a speed and accuracy that exceeds the ability of even experienced pilots.

The “legality” of this device is justified and accepted on the basis that it does not actually “drive” the trim of the cat’s foils. That’s performed by the muscle power of the crew, via hydraulic linkages. The device has been described as “automatic,” implying that the trim of the foils is determined by what can only be described as “superhuman” technology. If this technology was used to overcome the Oracle’s foiling difficulties, it may have enabled the use of smaller foils with much less surface area, and therefore less drag, resulting in higher speed. Without a “Little Herbie,” a small foil would have been impossible for the crew to handle.

Oracle also has a better wing design than Emirates Team New Zealand. The Oracle wing has more area up high and less down low. This is advantageous because wind speed is stronger up high, and the apparent wind angle (vector sum of true wind and the negative of the boat speed) is more favorable. The wing with more area high also has less induced drag. In the first five races, all of these advantageous features, especially when sailing upwind, were masked by other factors that were far from optimal.

Although Team New Zealand won races 6 and 7, it was obvious that Oracle had gained considerable upwind speed and was much better at foiling upwind. Furthermore, the team was tacking and jibing better. Jibes were done without coming down off the foils, and acceleration after tacks kept getting better and better.

Despite its problems and grandiose goals, the 34th America’s Cup was magnificent and extremely exciting. There were a lot of mistakes; some looked so bad that it seemed the Cup might implode. But I used to tell members of our crew: “Any mistake is good as long as three things happen: 1) You admit you made the mistake; 2) You learn from it; and 3) You do not sink the boat.”

Let’s hope Oracle has learned from its mistakes and does not repeat them. The 35th America’s Cup could, indeed, be a grand event. Russell Coutts, in addition to being a great sailor, is a very intelligent manager, and I am sure he will make the next Cup one of the best in America’s Cup history.

Bill Koch was skipper of America3, which won the 1992 America’s Cup against the Italian challenger Il Moro di Venezia, and backer of Mighty Mary, the women’s team that lost to Dennis Conner in the defender trials for the 1995 Cup. Soundings solicited this opinion piece from Koch.

January 2014 issue