While the first Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series (ACWS) event of 2016 unfurled last weekend (February 27-28) on the waters of the Sultanate of Oman, you are excused if you missed watching this event live, as it would have required setting alarms for the middle of the night to wake up and watch the races online. Mind you, you also would have needed to fork over some hard-earned dollars for the privilege of watching the racing-a far cry from the 34th America’s Cup, which played out on the waters of San Francisco Bay and on millions of televisions sets across the country and around the world.
No doubt British sailing fans enjoyed the weekend, given that Sir Ben Ainslie, the most decorated Olympic sailor in history and a national hero, won the event with a two-point margin over Oracle Team USA, the Defenders of the 35th America’s Cup, with Emirates Team New Zealand rounding-out the podium, but that did little to add real fire to the event, especially here in the States.
According to various reports, the crowds were marginal and the wind was also thin, with the weather failing to deliver the kind of pressure needed to allow the AC45 catamarans to foil. Instead, this ACWS event was sailed in displacement mode, with images emerging of crewmembers adding their weight to the bows of the leeward hull to help overall boat trim.
Given that so much of the hype and media buzz surrounding the ACWS-and even the 35th America’s Cup-is tied to foiling and sailing faster than the wind, this was an obvious disappointment to the hardy and bleary-eyed Americans who rallied for middle-of-the-night spectator racing, but the weather is the weather. Uncontrollable.
While weak winds can plague even normally breezy courses (remember some of the cancelled racing on San Francisco Bay during AC34?), I can’t help but wonder if there’s not something far more elemental than middle-of-the-night wake-up calls and displacement-mode sailing detracting from ACWS enthusiasm here in the States.
A quick visit to Ben Ainslie Racing’s (BAR) website reveals a sailing-team roster of 11 sailors, of which nine are British citizens. A visit to Oracle Team USA’s website, however, lists 14 sailors, four of whom (Rome Kirby, Andrew Campbell, Cooper Dressler and Matt Cassidy) are full-blooded Americans, while two others, Tom Slingsby and Louis Sinclair, carry dual passports. That leaves well over fifty percent (irrespective of how one crunches the numbers) of the team with foreign passports and little-if any-connection to the US of A, especially now that the team is based in Bermuda (home of the 35th America’s Cup, in 2017).
Peel the onion even further, and a look at Oracle Team USA’s sailing roster for the Oman ACWS event reveals a shortlist of six sailors: skipper Jimmy Spithill (AUS) Tom Slingsby (AUS/USA), Kinley Fowler (NZL), Kyle Langford (AUS), Sam Newton (AUS) and Matt Cassidy (USA).
While no one will accuse Oracle Team USA of helping to author a jingoistic Protocol for the 35th America’s Cup, I also can’t help but wonder if the lack of American sailors on a boat that bears our country’s name isn’t creating a serious PR drag for the American team during the run-up to AC35.
To be fair, international time zones and television broadcast rights have made it easier (and less expensive) to follow the Cup overseas, but there’s no question that BAR fans had a lot more incentive to cheer-on their team last weekend than American fans.
While it’s also obvious that Oracle Team USA and its founder, Larry Ellison, are not bending their ears to the populist cries regarding AC35’s Protocol and its weak nationality rules, the ACWS Oman event should serve as a wake-up call to the U.S.-flagged team that unless they wish to see AC35 foil into irrelevancy with the same fan group that supported the team during their darkest hour during the first half of AC34, changes need to be made.
by David Schmidt, Sail-World USA Editor