Sailing is all about technology and has been ever since the first sailor spread a stretched an animal skin as a sail. The America’s Cup, however, is far more technological than most sailing by a large measure. This thought occurred to me as I was sitting at a restaurant table with fourteen relatives and relations celebrating Mother’s Day, while also watching the second day of the New York Louis Vitton America’s Cup World Series, being sailed on lower Hudson River, on an app on my phone.
I was able to see the races much better on my phone than I would have been able to if I was actually there. The camera switched from an overhead helicopter shot with informative graphics to identify which boat was which, to live shots on the boats where the sailors were grinding the winches and leaping over the trampoline deck to tend sheets. Nothing at all like the good/bad old days where the races were held in the summer mists off Newport, RI and were narrated by radio at a pace considerably slower than the average commentary in a game of golf.
I had tried to see the races in person. My son, Ted, and I had waited on the Hudson River Esplanade on a cold and grey Saturday afternoon for the first round of the races to start. It was not to be. The wind, which was predicted to be light from the south-south-east was light and fitful from the north. The wind then died completely and began filling in from the south, but with no more enthusiasm than it had had all day. Over the loudspeaker, they announced that the race was cancelled as the “television broadcast window had closed.” They would hold an “alternative race” in the overcast gloom later that afternoon, but we didn’t stay.
So, there I was thoroughly enjoying watching the race on an Android app in a crowded and noisy restaurant. The cumulative technology involved was a bit staggering. The boats themselves are amazing — obscenely expensive carbon-fiber wonders with spindly hulls and towering masts, that fly through the air (if the wind cooperates) perched on slender carbon-fiber daggerboard and rudder foils, at speeds of two to three times faster than the wind. Yikes. I still remember the Intrepid, the successful cup defender in 1970, which was built of double planked mahogany on white oak frames. The Intrepid of 45 years ago had far more in common with the original schooner America of 1851, that she does with these high-tech multi-hull speed demons.
Beyond the boats themselves, the video technology is also a marvel. Around the world, people could watch the race live on television or on an online app, as I was doing. What I was watching was a video stream from a moving helicopter of six boats racing with graphics of the starting line, the turning marks and gates and the finish line, all overlaid on a moving river. The boat names and speeds were displayed as well as lots of other information that I could have accessed if I chose. The amount of computing power needed to synchronise the GPS positions of the helicopter, the boats racing and the course is incredible, yet most of us take it all for granted.
As amazing as all the technology truly is, I was also struck that the racers and race promoters were still at the mercy of two elements completely beyond their control — the river and the wind. Even with the best and most highly paid sailors in the world on their wonderfully high-tech boats, the competitors kept being carried across the starting line early, often sideways or stern first, by the strong Hudson River ebb currents. Likewise, even though the weather forecast on Sunday was for moderate to strong winds, racers found fluky breezes and large wind shadows from the skyscrapers along the river. Overall, the wind was light enough so that the flying cats never got airborne for long during the race.
For those who missed the race, here is a 1-minute 35-second summary.