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America's Cup 2010 - Oracle and Alinghi face off, one last time

by Simon Reffold, for Sail-World.com on 21 Mar 2010
Brown, Simmer, Spithill - RPAYC Simon Reffold
And the result was, frankly, surprising. Perhaps, after all the shenanigans, legal wrangling, posturing and vitriol of the past two and bit years, perhaps, sailing is going in a truly positive direction. Here’s why.

Tonight, down under in Australia, the Royal Prince Alfred Yacht Club, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, put on a little soiree for a number of its members who were part of the 33rd America’s Cup.

While there were quite a few in that number, most notable were Grant Simmer, Managing Director and Design Coordinator of Alinghi and James Spithill, Helmsman of BMW Oracle and winner of the 33rd America’s Cup. They were acknowledged by the Club and several hundred members (more than has been seen on those grounds for many years) and host Rob Brown OAM, himself a past AC winner with the historic Australia II, conducted a Q&A style interview with firstly James, and then Grant too.

Now, you couldn’t ask for a more partisan crowd. Clearly no one was going to be under any pressure and the chances of some hidden resentment bubbling up on the stylishly lit stage in front of several hundred beaming faces was... well it was nil.



So, denied any sort of scoop it was easy enough to settle back into note taking mode... but then, amid the saccharin something else far more interesting but deeper and initially less tangible, became clear.

These guys were stoked.

Stoked like a 10 year old gets when they master their first gybe in a bit of pressure. Stoked like you feel when you put the bow down the face of a wave and feel the acceleration, knowing you’re right on the ragged edge – but still in control.

James and Grant were stoked like a couple of kids who got to play with some of the most exhilarating, expensive, and advanced sailing kit in the world. Really, watching these two normally focussed and driven men on stage when they were talking about how 'cool' they’re boats were and both truly glowing about the others’ boats, you’d have thought they were in the playground trading 'Top Trumps' cards.

When was the last time you remember hearing one of the elite Sailors we read about all the time being 'Stoked'?

Doesn’t happen because, until now, there has been little to get 'stoked' about.

At this point all the Multi-Hull sailors are going to chime in and say 'we told you so' and right you are; you did.

While the Monohull fraternity has spent years creating some of the slowest and least interesting boats since the Coracle you Cat and Tri sailors have been hooning off everywhere. So have the board sailors and recently the Kite surfers. They are all getting 'stoked' all the time and their numbers are growing. But, according to us monohull sailors – they don’t, or didn’t, count.

Of course Dinghy and Skiff Sailors also well know what it is to be stoked but they, like the multi hull sailors, were all regarded as loonies too.

Grant Simmer has done every America’s Cup since navigating Australia II in 1983. He is a degreed engineer. He is renowned for his solid, tactical, methodical approach. He has won three America’s Cups doing it.

When asked what it was he would like to have done better with Alinghi he said 'we were too conservative' he and his team built one of the most powerful and exciting sailing boats in the world and it was 'too conservative'???

Grant is a handsome man, square jawed and steely eyed. Dry sense of humour – probably pretty good at poker. But get him started on the meat and potatoes of this last America’s Cup and the face softens, the eyes moisten a little and the corners of his mouth gives away the youthful enthusiasm he clearly has for the project.

He loved it, pure and simple. The design and engineering challenges, working with a new type of boat, building and shaping a new team and working with some old friends too. Flying Alinghi under a Russian Helicopter across the Alps – all these things gave him renewed vigour and enthusiasm.

Luckily too, as Grant said that many of the team were not going to continue if it was in the same Version Five boats.

So despite the ultimate demise of Alinghi 5 at the hands of the far less conservative BMW Oracle, he’d do it all again, but far less conservatively.

James Spithill is in the league of the great athletes of the world. He is the Schumacher/ Jordan/Federer mould and no mistake. He’s talented, dedicated, focussed, committed and, when he is in front of a crowd he commands the room, as doubtless he commands the boat, with a resonant and clear voice. The anecdotes are interesting and funny when required. He’s probably very well mannered too, and nice to his mum.

He is then, just what this sport needs.

Renowned as a brilliant and aggressive starter he has earned the nick name 'pit-bull'. So then, surely as the consummate professional, he is impervious to the appeal of these boats? Far from it.


'When it was all over' James said, 'i really wasn’t sure what I was going to do... I loved sailing that boat every time I got on it' two years of one boat testing (the most boring kind) and he still loved it? 'Absolutely' and he’d really like to have a sail on Alinghi because he thought that it was 'one of the coolest boats in the world'.

So, what has this all got to with the future of the Sport?

We have just come out of a relatively dark age for our sport... the dropping of the multi-hull from the Olympics was widely regarded as a monumental cock-up.

The whole AC33 thing doesn’t need another comment but suffice to say that, off the water, it sucked much of the life out of the sport – sailing doesn’t engender much interest outside of sailors except in rare cases.

And the last AC both obliterated public interest outside of watching a slow motion wreck and, more importantly, bored sailors themselves, until race day that is.

But there is hope. The Volvo has some pretty awesome boats (and, perhaps one with an Alinghi logo in the not too distant future?) and an exciting and commercially viable race format.

The Louis Vuitton Intergalactic World Championship is enjoying renewed interest and, thanks to a solid web-based coverage, relatively large viewer ship.

As you read this Franck Cammas and Groupama are either just about to finish or have just finished the Jules Verne Trophy – thrashing the record again to now well under 50 days to circumnavigate the globe.

Even designs are improving. Yachts are getting faster, safer and way more exciting. Dinghies are getting re-invented and improved and great new ideas like Devoti’s one man, spinnakered weapon and the fantastic foiling moths give us more to be stoked about.

At the top end of our sport there is now more and more to reach for, more to aspire to and so Clubs are creating learn to sail programmes with a pathway to youth development that can now promise young sailors something really cool to aim for.

That is where James came from – the RPAYC’s youth development programme has fostered many great sailors, with James as its greatest advertisement, and greatest advocate. He paid glowing tribute to the programme and hoped that his success would motivate other kids.

You’d have to think that if a kid, be they a sailor or not, took a look at the last AC boats they’d say – 'I want to have a go on one of those'.

So, from the mire has come hope. We’re not out of the woods yet – Messrs Ellison, Coutts and Spithill have to come up with an engaging and exciting AC format that maintains the enthusiasm.

Sailing’s administrative powers that be have to keep embracing the future, while respectfully nodding to the past, and ensure that sailing is an embracing and inclusive sport. Not one with petty boundaries and politics.

And we sailors, we have to get out there and talk it up, we have to find our enthusiasm for the sport again.

There were three blokes on stage this evening that were just stoked to be there – talking about their boats, their teams and their sport. There was no animosity, no bitching – just enthusiasm. And enthusiasm like that is infectious.

Sail-World.com has audio of the full evening and will release audio and then transcripts over the next few days.

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