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Monday, June 25, 2007

The America's Cup - Old foes meet again

Saturday marked the start of the America's Cup. All the lead up over the past three and a half years has lead us to this moment, where the Defender's (Alinghi from Switzerland) once again face Emirates Team New Zealand in a rematch from 2003. In that contest Team New Zealand proved no contest to Alinghi, who proceeded to thump the Kiwi boat 5-0 in the best of nine series of racing. Dean Barker (the Kiwi skipper) has ensured that history will not repeat itself entirely by taking the second match from Alinghi on Sunday to even the score (Alinghi won the first match) 1-1.

This America's Cup competition has been hailed as one that has brought sailing to the masses. The series of races leading up to the main event was covered far and wide by the international media and saw three countries (Germany, China, and South Africa) enter boats for the first time in the Cup's majestic history. But what exactly is this sport all about, and what predicts performance?

In many ways America's Cup sailing is a team sport version of Formula 1 racing. First and foremost, it demands incredibly high technical standards. The boats and masts are made of carbon fiber, as is much of the hardware on the boat, and the sails are kevlar and carbon. This characteristic of the sport dictates that enormouse budgets are required by those who choose to enter this arena.

Yet in many ways this sport is much like cycling. Even given the lightest, fastest, and most high-tec bike, you still have to make it go. And so it is with the America's Cup. A team of no less than 17 individuals does all the jobs required to make these boats go fast, and a team must be completely in sync to achieve success.

The jobs require a wide array of skills, both athletic and sailing specific. The "grinders" are 100+ kg guys who operate the massive winches to pull in the sails. They often work with another guy on one winch, and so they must operate as one as they crank the winch as fast as possible. Due to the massive loads and sails, we are talking about huge power outputs here, like in the order of 1000+ Watts but for short bursts (5-8 s) at a time. At the other end of the scale, the bowman needs speed and agility as he maniupulates hardware at the bow and runs fore and aft all the time.

In addition to this, one person's job most often occurs together with other jobs, and therefore the team must function as a well-oiled machine so that everyone's tasks are accomplished while maintaining the boat's speed, with no one waiting for another to complete his task before the next guy can start his. To use a cliche, it is poetry in motion when you can understand all the activity that happens on these boats on an ongoing basis!

As we mentioned, the series is tied now at one race each, with the next race on Tuesday, 26 June. It is being billed as a potentially decisive race as Team NZL appears to have some momentum after beating Alinghi on Sunday. However, the driver of Alinghi, American Ed Baird, has over 10 years of America's Cup driving experience, and Alinghi's overall record since entering the competition in 2000 is an impressive 82% (61 out of 74).

You can follow the racing live on the Versus Network in the USA, Supersport in South Africa, and the rest you can listen to the live broadcast from the America's Cup Website. Come back later for a post about how to win an America's Cup race!