A Cup Half Full
The America’s Cup in Bermuda was an extraordinary affair but lacked the fan experience.
Out in the open, Emirates Team New Zealand’s shore crew insert rudders into its AC50. PHOTO :D AV E R EED
Naturally occurring forest fires are Mother Nature’s way of cleansing itself of dead wood and invasive species, allowing dormant new growth to rise anew. That’s how I equate the outcome of the 35th America’s Cup Match. Emirates Team New Zealand came to Bermuda, laid its pile of tinder, and then threw a match on the entire thing. The era of Oracle Team USA went up in an inferno to be reborn in Auckland in 2021.
Larry Ellison underwrote an incredible chapter of the America’s Cup, pushing the technology in a way that was so progressive it left old oldtimers wishing for the return of normal match racing and boats with sails that go up and down. Ellison brought the Cup and high-speed catamaran racing to the shorelines of San Francisco and everywhere else the World Series traveled, putting sailing in front of millions more eyeballs. In the end, Ellison and Russell Coutts delivered on their promise to make the event more exciting and easier for the casual observer to follow. The AC72S were marvelous, the AC45S were cool, but the AC50S were technical wonders.
Behind the scenes, however, the integrity of Ellison’s Cup became increasingly and markedly compromised as it marched forward to its conclusion in Bermuda. I missed the grandeur and the big crowds of San Francisco, but I enjoyed the intimacy and warmth of the isolated community in the middle of the Atlantic. While covering the event for most of May and June, I never saw much of the island, save for the America’s Cup Village and the official media hotel out by the airport. The digs were good, the view overlooking Grotto Bay was excellent, the breakfast buffet was included, and the legendary Swizzle Inn was just up the road. What more could a working journalist need?
It was at least an hour’s ride by road to get to the Village, so organizers arranged a daily ferry for the media, which included journos from major newspapers, the television production crew, and photographers with their big-wheeled hard cases. Like clockwork, we departed from the hotel dock at 8:30 a.m., and the ferry carried us round the outside of the
island before depositing us inside the America’s Cup Village 45 minutes later. It was a morning commute I now miss.
The Race Village didn’t officially open until hours later, so the place was a ghost town. Thankfully, the New Zealanders were always on schedule and gave us something to do. We’d hang out behind the barricade waiting to get some face time with any one of the sailors or shore crew. The routine of launching the AC50 never got old because it’s fascinating to watch a million- dollar piece of craftsmanship suspended overhead as men in yellow hard hats slot rudders into the hulls from underneath. There was a lot to observe: what foil tips they had on for the day, what rudder elevators they chose, and what the mood was.
The Team New Zealand base was integrated into the America’s Cup Village, although subtly so, which proved to be a good thing: The energy and excitement of the crowd that cheered them off each day was a motivator. The Kiwis were always there, front and center, and part of the Cup. Far away and out of sight at their base were Oracle Team USA, always in lock down, inaccessible and earning little to no adoration from the casual Cup fans who paid good money to walk through the entrance to see them.
The original design of the America’s Cup Village had a long “pit row” concept leading out from the Village and to the nearby Royal Navy Dockyards where Oracle had staked its flag years earlier. Fans were supposed to be able to walk the row, interact with the teams, peer into their bases for a glimpse of the sailors going about their business. But somewhere along the line, someone installed a chain-link fence and manned it with security, preventing all but team personnel and VIPS from entering.
Each day before racing, the villagers would assemble around the New Zealand barricades, even those people sporting tiny American flags. The defender had zero presence. After racing, the same was true; the Kiwis were visible and accessible. The American boat returned to its base, without a single sailor ever stepping foot in the Village, except for Jimmy Spithill, who was discreetly escorted to and from the media center. Sadly, the choreographed Dockout Show, which was a daily highlight for fans in San Francisco, was altogether abandoned. When I asked why, I was told by the ACEA’S communications director: “We just decided to tighten up the schedule a little more. Simple as that.”
Well, you know that moment at every major sporting event where the players run or walk onto the field or the court before the game? The spectators actually enjoy that. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the most important elements of the fan experience.
So every day I watched the New Zealanders dock out, jamming myself among their fans, every single one of them waving a flag of some sort. It was impossible not to get swept up in the emotion and eventually find myself a Team New Zealand fan. I even grabbed a flag to bring home for my kids. In fact, it was the only memento I brought back from Bermuda. I’ll have to bring it with me to Auckland, where I hope to see national crews racing extraordinary high-performance boats. Q Helmsman Peter Burling takes a barefoot stroll to work with a Kiwi wave to friends and fans. PHOTO :D AV E R EED