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The leaking America’s Cup

Michael O'Hare, professor of public policy | September 16, 2013

Hey, the famous America’s Cup Yacht Races are happening right now in San Francisco Bay!  Hey, really, is that exciting or what; you can watch this immortal series, cheer for your favorite boats, see thrilling…are you listening to me?  Is anyone watching?

Larry Ellison with racing-team helmsman James Spithill and actor Harrison Ford

Larry Ellison, owner of the BMW ORACLE racing team, with helmsman James Spithill and actor Harrison Ford, 2009. (Port of San Diego photo via WikiMedia)

What a bust. The Chronicle loyally slips an annoying page-and-a-half sheet about it over the front page every day, that I have to peel off and discard. I have not heard a word of conversation about it anywhere and I don’t know anyone who has a clue who’s winning. Or knows who’s even racing except Larry Ellison, whose brainchild this stinker was and who is spending $80m to put two of the boats in the water. Fifteen teams have shrunk to four, and the hopes of the city making money have evaporated.

What happened here is that Ellison (and the whole arrangement, including the design of the boats that would compete, is his call) completely misunderstood what’s important about the sport, and what’s not. What he thought was important, and would gin up public engagement with the sport, was going fast, so the boats, if you can call them that, are enormously expensive catamarans with rigid airfoil sails and hydrofoils that can lift the hulls out of the water.

Wow, they really go fast! But they don’t have any of the tradition of real sailing; no spinnakers or even Genoa jibs (at least not in any pictures I’ve seen yet) to balloon out on downwind legs and change at the turn, practically no rigging, no worrying about luffing.

Most important, they have nothing to do with what constitutes sailing for people who sail, whether dinghies or ocean racers. They are capable of nothing except course racing: they have no cabins, you can’t sail them to anywhere or take your friends out for a weekend trip, and  they are extremely dangerous in unprotected waters (trimarans and catamarans have, last time I talked to a sailor, a very bad record of leaving port and not coming home). One of these even killed someone right on the bay earlier this summer.

But they go really fast.  Here is where Ellison got it wrong, because extremely fast is what power hydroplanes do even better, and make more noise doing it. Got a lot of friends who follow that sport?  Losing the culture, aesthetics, and spirit of yachting to just go fast is sort of like trying to make music better by playing it louder with a bigger amp, or “improving marksmanship” by putting lots of processing power into the rifle.

Ellison browbeat and bullied everyone into playing a game by rules amusing to him, and in the end almost nobody came, nobody is watching, and nobody cares.

Cross-posted from the blog The Reality-Based Community (tag line: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts).

Comments to “The leaking America’s Cup

  1. “in the end almost nobody came, nobody is watching, and nobody cares”

    Today’s SF Chronicle (

    Fans crowd waterfront for America’s Cup finale

    Thousands of flag-waiving sailing fans crowded onto Pier 27 hours before the final race Wednesday … In perhaps the ultimate compliment to the event’s organizers, many Bay Area residents played hooky from work and school to join the crowd.

  2. I’ll quote from Reuters (

    “The second race was among the most thrilling in America’s Cup history…”

    and also from a 4 times Olympic gold medalist quoted in the same article:

    “The most fun and exciting sailing I’ve ever been involved with…”

    The AC72s topped 49 knots live. This was the outright speed record for ANY sailboat in 2008, only five years ago ( With race speed averages above 30 knots, those boats are certainly the fastest around the buoys in history. Nevertheless, regardless the costs involved and unlike in previous editions of the America’s Cup, anyone can watch (and understand) the races for free at San Francisco bay shore. We can also watch it live on TV and YouTube.

    You just have to look at the AC72s themselves, at the advances in broadcasting techniques, sailing format, umpiring aids and media resources at use, to see that Larry Ellison did more for the improvement of sailing and to bring it to the general public than any former AC holder.

    Since the choice of boat type, style and other features is a matter of personal preference, you may prefer to sail or watch slow boats in the privacy of a yacht club. The AC, however, is not about this type of love. It is and has always been about power, money, speed, technology and skill.

  3. I grew up in San Diego when monohulls raced Americas Cup races slowly and far offshore. Talk about an exclusive sport. And boring. And the ACup has always been about rich white guys. Ted Turner. Bill Koch, Ellison. It will remain so for the most part.

    At least now we can walk down for free to many places in San Diego and see cutting edge sailing. Regardless of hard sail or soft sail I think it’s great.

    Every niche sport will have its complainers that it’s not true to its roots , or irrelevant to the masses. Who cares. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass doesn’t interest me. Nor does the SF Symphony. But plenty of people dig them.

    In the meantime come down to the Bay and see a race up close that we will likely not see here in SF again.

  4. I stumbled upon the AC by accident and have been following the races from both at work and at home. NBC’s coverage shows thousands upon thousands of people out there watching the races and the twitter feed #americascup is on fire on race days. I know nothing about sailing but found these races to be very exciting. Next thing I know I’m checking out the website for Volvo Ocean Race 2014-2015(@volvooceanrace), seems I may be a convert…

  5. Your “tag line” about province of opinions and facts is quite ironic considering that you have confused the two in your blog post. Do you know anyone that races boats on the Bay? How about anyone that races sailboats? What about New Zealander, do you know any of them? You can bet they know the score.

  6. Here’s more evidence for you that you’re totally wrong:

    The official America’s Cup mobile app, produced by Dunedin-based Animation Research Ltd (ARL), is making waves around the world. Yesterday the App had reached almost 300,000 downloads, and had been the 1 free sports app for iPhones in New Zealand for 5 consecutive days. The iPad app reached 17 in the top free sports apps in the US for a number of days and the iPhone app is still at 19. Around the world it is a 8 in Australia, 4 in Switzerland, 24 in Spain and 32 in the UK.

  7. Sadly, I could not agree more with the Professors assessment! This is NOT what sailboat racing and the Americas Cup is about! One can only hope that the Kiwis will restore it to some semblance of tradition when they take the Cup…

    Los Angeles, CA

    • Bob, sincere question… what exactly is the AC about if not racing, rich guys with expensive toys, nationalities, entertainment, excitement?

      Ok, so it isn’t monohulls sailing miles off shore where nobody can watch. Other than that, how can you not get excited by these extremely close and fast races?

  8. The author had better look around!

    Twitter and Facebook have massively lit up with conversation about the AC!

    This has been the most talked about AC ever – more speed, more lead changes than all of the other cups combined! People are massively excited! Sure, previous cups had 20 people in total interested, this cup has millions of viewers on the internet and on TV around the world.

    Larry Ellison has positively improved the AC forever.

    Dig your head out of the academic sand.

  9. The speed of the boats is intriguing. The races are not – and not just because the boats don’t have dog houses or loos below decks. Most of the races are not competitive. The course is too short for the speed of the boats and there is too little opportunity to overcome a mistake.

    The TV coverage is superb but there is so little drama that the broadcasts must entrap its viewers with high tech reconstructions. Ellison definitely got it wrong.

  10. This blogger would probably have us race Formula One in horse drawn chariots by this reasoning. I am a professional sailor, who knows the sharp end from the blunt end, and I can unequivocally aver that I have never enjoyed the America’s Cup more then this 34th iteration. Mr O’Hare would obviously be surprised at the relevance these craft hold for future sailors, as has always been the case with top drawer competition.

  11. There was to be more than the 3 teams as challengers in the Louis Vuitton Cup,

    America’s Cup Event Authority announced that, following withdrawals or failure to meet the eligibility criteria, only four challenging teams would compete: Kungliga Svenska Segelsällskapet’s Artemis Racing, Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s Team New Zealand, Circolo della Vela Sicilia’s Luna Rossa Challenge and Sail Korea Yacht Club’s Team Korea

    Then in March, 2013, Team Korea also withdrew

  12. Hmm. Not sure I agree. I don’t think America’s Cup boats have ever been your garden variety yacht. They’re designed to win the America’s Cup and not much else. Although I think the stuff they’re learning on these boats will influence the design of garden variety yachts —

    Furthermore, did you watch the races this weekend? Amazing sailing! As NZ skipper Dean Barker put it, if you didn’t like the sailing on Sunday, maybe sailing is not your sport!

    Look, I don’t think Ellison is ever going to win the award for nicest person on the planet, although incidentally, I think the squabbles over boats and rules are nothing new to the AC, but Ellison’s vision of having the cup races inside the bay, where people can watch from shore, was a great one. It’s wonderful! And there were tons of people out on Saturday, when I was there. Go check it out on Tuesday — you’ll see people watching and caring.

    Sure, sailboats with one hull and pretty sails are beautiful, and they will always be around (although it’s arguably easier to take a catamaran on a sandbar picnic) — but these boats really exciting, and really fun to watch.

  13. For a professor you are badly wrong in many ways. Furthermore you are prepared to pontificate based on a reported comment from an unverifiable source, some sailor who may or may not be competent on his own vessel but who is not au fait with multihulls.

    Modern ones have an enviable safety record cruising and there have been several record breaking, non stop round the world voyages made in catamarans and trimarans, some of them single handed, a fairly recent one made by a rather diminutive young lady. As family cruisers they excel in more comfortable motion, more room and generally better performance.

    The boats competing for the Americas Cup are flat out racers, designed for a particular race course. Of no practical value, but neither are F.1. cars. Try looking at it that way.

  14. Apparently the professor does not get out of the classroom much. There is a whole sphere of sailing that do it without a ton of lead and more than one hull at a time. I think they would disagree with his assessment.

  15. About Ellison you’re right, but I know many folks, including (hold your breath) academics, who know exactly who is winning, who is at the helm of both boats, and why, and who also agree that this is not about sailing, per se, but about arrogant billionaire show-offs. Oh well. What isn’t, these days.

  16. What do you mean fifteen teams have shrunk to four? Maybe you should read those newspapers instead of tossing them!

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