Passion, madness, hope… and a look ahead

52 Super Series

52 Super Series manager ROB WEILAND on the future

While one man was spending half a billion dollars, not just to keep the America’s Cup but also around half of it in trying to turn the Cup into a business by formatting sailing to fit the many screens in our life, there are Winter Games being prepared in the subtropical town of Sochi costing an estimated $US50 billion for 16 days of skating, skiing and hockey. And topping all this by far, every day one migrant labourer dies to establish the artificial town of Lusail City in Qatar, to host the 2022 Soccer Worlds at an estimated cost of $100 billion… for a four-week tournament of 64 matches. When madness invades the games that we like to watch or play it is time to look in the mirror.

The 34th America’s Cup had all the drama once week two of the racing got going. The comeback was something marketeers could only dream of. Cause for suspense and speculation, brought to us in such a compelling way that the racing attracted attention well beyond the sailing world. At those moments when it was close between the boats the high-speed combat was great to watch, and you could sense the risks. The course layout helped to keep it close, as did the fact that the main speed difference was upwind. The boats look aggressive, as we expect nowadays, but quite static in the sense that the wing and the jib for most viewers are solid and not really moving. No sail changes, no hoists, no drops… The only obvious crew activity is the endless grinding for hydraulic power and the bouncy run from side to side after a tack or gybe. The foiling was the other marketeer’s dream. Easy to spot, easy to hype, easy to sell, great stuff.

Measured by a wider goal than retaining the America’s Cup the exercise was of course a commercial flop; and worse, barring the final few days, it was not all that great from a sporting point of view. Ask the Louis Vuitton Cup about that.

The dispute of ‘top or flop’ will rage on for a bit, with fierce positions on both sides. The same for the narrower debate, multihull versus monohull. Which in my modest opinion has little to do with whether we can or cannot enjoy or market yacht racing. A unique vision was going to bring us the future of yacht racing. Was it? Did it? At the end of the day the technical part of the vision was saved by something that the vision explicitly tried to block: foiling.

Boats that fly, even though the theory and first attempts are over 100 years old, captured everyone’s imagination. As did Oracle’s huge wing sail in the 33rd AC. But did anyone switch on their TV to watch the wings this time? No. Likewise, the masses will not switch their attention to sailing for the 35th edition just because cats fly. We can only be surprised once.

It will be easier (and cheaper) to attract attention by zooming in on the main players, like another Larry vs Ernesto contest, or similarly by exploiting the nationality card. Orchestrating another comeback as historical as what we just watched will be tough. As for the future? You do not need to be an accountant to answer that one.

Thanks to the Kiwis for the foiling. Actually, the Kiwis provided 90 per cent of the positive entertainment in this Cup. It is easy to like the good guys, certainly when the bad guys do all that they can to live up to that role. Including winning, for which sincere congratulations are in order. Russell Coutts is still the greatest. In combination with an unlimited budget, he presents a tall mountain to climb.

Grant Dalton, on the other hand, is the most efficient team boss measured on a budget-performance ratio. For that reason alone it would have been better to see the Cup go to New Zealand, back to reality. As I write this the New Zealand government has just announced it will support Team New Zealand for the 35th America’s Cup. Grant, Dean and the entire team have proved that yacht racing can reach the soul of the masses; to the extent that government and individuals chip in in an unprecedented way. Soul and pocket, a powerful combination. It shows the future of yacht racing is in the first place about people and a mentality you can relate to: passion, hard work, loyalty…

In the end the faster boat won. Oracle got a bit of help from rules that admittedly they did not ask for. The wind and time limit rules saved their campaign. In the end the 3kt to 33kt true wind strength vision was boxed in to about half that range. Not only did it lose ETNZ a few races, it also bought Oracle the time to adjust their boat and their way of sailing.

The 40-minute time limit in combination with the speed potential of the boats and not being able to adjust the course length were plain silly. At this level somebody should have worked that one out. Ultimately, I could see which boat was faster by looking at the faces of Dean [Barker] and Ray [Davies]. No need to look at the data. As Oracle wound up their programme it became so painful that I did not watch the last four races live. It was so blatantly obvious that somehow Oracle had managed to achieve more stable foiling, whether upwind, downwind or reaching… pretty soon the mind switched to the why.

The ‘fly-by-wire’ suspense now turning up on the internet is an obvious but perhaps too easy answer. To do whatever the team did and speed up USA 17 in the situation they were in, however, is quite amazing. ETNZ were not able to match Oracle’s development. Possibly not having another card up the sleeve was the only real flaw in an otherwise brilliant campaign. Now that Oracle have won the question of why they were so chaotic the first week does not seem to matter any more. Easy to blame it on the cheating saga. Too easy.

The 52 Super Series is close to many of the aspects of the AC and yet so far away. We share the focus on team effort, technology, development and offering the highest level of competition. Then again the AC level of animosity between individuals and teams that is ‘part of the show’, and by many is seen as essential for the commercial exploitation of the event, is not remotely desirable for events like the 52 Super Series.

Certainly, those who pay the bills also want to have a good time, both on the shore and on the water. This translates to healthy and fair competition, meeting interesting people, entertaining friends, good locations and conditions. Part of the fun for almost all owners is to be onboard their boat and for most to be on the helm. The discussion about the future of yacht racing, at any other level than fully commercial, is not about what people like to see on their screen or from the shore but about what those who pay to race their yachts want.

In essence, the future of yacht racing and of the industry behind it is determined by private owners. Even at the America’s Cup level this is the current reality. The short-term question for the Cup is whether at the present level of cost, animosity and dislocation from nationality there will be enough participants at the 35th edition? Longer term the sensible question is how to control the spending, not whether or not to do so. Success in sport should be based on more than outspending each other. But the difficulty of doing this is familiar to many other categories of racing.

Sailing is a technical equipment sport. At the 52 Super Series, where individual teams on average spend less than two per cent of an AC campaign on racing six events per year, both team and event budgets are never far away from our thoughts in our decision process. Today, after four years of cost cutting, the TP52 class members have taken some steps that add to the budget. But they feel these are required to keep the TP52 at the forefront of technology, as well as competitive outside class rule racing.

Speeding up the boats and the changes to ultra high-modulus carbon for the mast and to composite rigging will add about $US100,000 to the budget required to build a TP52. The increased sail area will add to the annual budget.

Mixing pro and private teams and pro and owner drivers is another topic that keeps us on our toes. Where to position our racing on the pro-am scale? Right now the vast majority of the 52 Super Series participants and TP52 class members feel there should be no pro limits on the boats. In line with the highest level of competition, that is the vision of the 52 Super Series.

Like the America’s Cup the 52 Super Series is spending more on promoting the product than the returns we each receive. Outlay must precede return. Not necessarily all returns need to be in hard cash, but our benefactors quite rightly insist their money is well spent.

Right now growth in participation is the number one goal. With that the 52 Super Series is on the right track. What the number two goal is most likely depends on who you talk to, but for sure in the years to come there will be the wish to see more financial balance.

2014 is approaching fast so the TP52 teams that race the full 52 Super Series programme, two events in the US and four in the Med, will meet in the third week of January at Quantum Key West Race Week. From closing the 2013 Super Series in Porto Cervo, Sardinia, it gives the teams a window of just four months to do some work on the boats, ship to Palm Beach, deliver to Key West and start again.

The sunshine state, Florida, is home to both our US events; the second one is in Miami, first week of March. For these two events the 2014 TP52 Box Rule will be virtually unchanged from the 2013 version; you might notice that the boats will carry one crew less compared to 2013 for a maximum crew weight of 1,130kg. The IRC maximum weight for a TP52 is 1,275kg, to give you an idea.

We expect to see a minimum of eight boats at Key West and Miami, familiar names and new ones. Rio has changed hands and will participate under the name Sled, with her new owner, Mr Okura, on the helm. He previously owned the 52 that started life as Warpath.

Vesper will again join in at Miami and could attend Key West on a charter basis. After another round of boat optimisation, Vesper showed in the Rolex Big Boat Series that this 2008 girl still has the legs of a teenager. She outperformed the much younger Beecom, ex-All4One, in their personal match racing contest. With Gavin Brady calling the shots on Vesper it was a tall order for Beecom. The most recent surgery on Vesper included extending the keel fin 15cm and adding a composite headstay. Let’s see in Miami how that pans out against the Med boats, for sure it will be interesting upwind and not easy to pass Brady once he’s ahead. One understands why Jim Schwarz, Vesper’s owner and helmsman, hangs on to the boat. She has brought him so many good results and so much fun.

In Miami we will again race from Miami Beach Marina and work together with the Biscayne Bay Yacht Club and Storm Trysail Club on the race management. Sun, good breeze, green-blue water, beach, palm trees, Miami nightlife and Monty’s for breakfast and refreshments to top it off. No need to worry about us…

Back in the Med the 52 Super Series will race at four stunning locations. In May Rolex Capri Sailing Week, June Porto Cervo for the TP52 worlds, first week of August Palma Mallorca for the Copa del Rey and for the closing event (and closing party) no better finish than Ibiza for the Royal Cup Marina Ibiza.

It will be exciting next year to see the first new TP52 built to the 2015 TP52 Rule joining the fleet. With her flush deck, larger cockpit and composite rigging Mr de Souza Ramos’s new boat will be the centre of attention. Pressure on the class manager, of course: did he get it right when ‘reigning in’ the potential of Phoenix, as she will be called, to compete fairly with the existing boats for 2014…

Not til 2015 will we see the full potential of the 2015 TP52 Rule. Then the lower displacement, increased sail area and greater stability fully kick in. But from Capri we will already see the longer 2015 bowsprits and increased spinnaker and jib areas.

Also special for 2014 is that the 52 Super Series will join Rolex and the International Maxi Association at one of their events: Rolex Capri Sailing Week. Easily one of the most attractive settings for yacht racing, Napoli Bay and her coastline, dominated by Vesuvius. From the island of Capri you can sit and admire the view… just as the Roman emperors did 2,000 years ago.

Rob Weiland, 52 class manager

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