Monday, February 15, 2010

It Goes Without Saying

After an exhausting six hour delay, I watched yesterday’s America’s Cup race on ESPN’s webcast. Gary Jobson and Randy Smyth did a terrific job of talking sailors through the race. Randy Smyth, former Olympic silver medal winner (twice) in Tornadoes, (catamarans) added an area of expertise that Jobson lacked and was tremendously informative on the techniques and art of multi-hull sailing. I thought he brought out the best in Jobson and that they made a great team.

Now that I have said nice things about them, it’s time to slam them. It’s really just picking a bone, but we’ll call it slamming for the indignant blogger’s effect. Is it really necessary to skew criticism and praise so that the loser gets all of the former and the winner all of the latter? It’s not fair, and it’s not deserved. It seems to me that Jobson and Smyth could never get over the facts that Alinghi had not used those high tech curved daggerboards and that they had a windward rudder that frequently dragged in the water. They brought it up repeatedly at five minute intervals. They were rightfully hard on Alinghi for the pre-start fouls which on both days were inexcusable for racing at this level. (Why wasn’t Ed Baird driving? Really, come on!)

But on the other side, I thought they let BMW off the hook for not following the Sailing 101 textbook. Right there in the chapter about one on one sailing (which applies to match racing, team racing , and fleet racing) it says that the boat ahead should cover the boat behind. This must be even more true when the boat ahead is faster. The only way for the faster boat ahead to loose the lead is to allow the opponent to sail in different wind where they might get a favorable shift and/or more wind.

The situation happened just after the start. BMW Oracle got into a controlling pre-start position and then watched Alinghi do an agonizingly, horrendously slow escape tack. The result that was the BMW Oracle had a substantial lead at the start. Alinghi had already committed a foul, so she was, in fact, behind by a penalty turn plus the gap at the starting line. Because Alinghi tacked, they were on port and headed right. BMW Oracle was still on starboard. The standard move is for BMW Oracle to tack and cover. The view from the boat must be different. BWM Oracle must have seen something they liked on the left, but the faster boat sailing in the same wind, BMW Oracle could have pretty much put the fork into Alinghi early on.

Shortly after the start of the second race, Alinghi on port and BMW Oracle leading on starboard tack.

I don’t know what happens, but it seems every time I’m absolutely sure the opponent is going the wrong way, and I don’t cover, the other boat gets the shift and takes the lead. It’s embarrassing how many times this happens. You think I would learn. It must be Murphy’s law of sailing. (Remember when Dennis Conner made the same mistake to lose the cup in 1983?)

Sure enough, Alinghi got a 20 degree shift and eventually took a substantial lead.

Jobson and Smyth had called for the early tack even before Alinghi got to the starting line, but BMW Oracle sailed on, splitting tacks, and giving Alinghi the leverage they needed to have a chance. Both commentators made the suggestion to tack about a minute and a half later, but it took about three full minutes before the tack actually occurred. By that time, the boats were about a mile apart. Why weren’t Jobson and Smyth shouting about this apparent blunder? They know better. BMW Oracle handed Alinghi their only real chance. Once the incident was in the past, the announcers dropped the subject. For a while, not surprisingly, the faster BMW Oracle boat continued to gain, getting as much as a 500 meter lead. But then Murphy’s law (and the better wind closer to shore) began to take effect, gradually eating up the lead and then advancing Alinghi to as much as 590 meters ahead. As BMW Oracle lost the lead and then got significantly behind, Jobson and Smyth said nothing about their failure to cover. As a coach, albeit one at a very basic level of sailing, I’m jumping up and down in these situations ranting about obvious mistakes.

How could Jobson and Smyth just let this go so quietly? I understand all is forgiven after BMW regains the lead, but if you are talking about match race tactics, this is quite an omission.

All in all, we knew this was an engineering contest to build the fastest wind powered rocket ship, but shouldn’t world class sailors get the basic match racing stuff right? It’s not as if there were many opportunities for mistakes and somebody made one. There were only a handful of times the racing was tactical, and mistakes were made about half the time. And shouldn’t big time sailing commentators use this opportunity to hammer home to interested viewers the tactics of match racing? If one team makes a mistake, say so! It shouldn’t be hushed up just because it’s our team.

And congratulations to BMW Oracle, the better sailors and by far the better rocket ship.

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