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Lessons from the America’s Cup

Lessons from the America’s Cup

Lessons from the America’s Cup

My memories of sailboat racing as a young man came flooding back over the past two weeks as I watched the America’s Cup races being broadcast from San Francisco.  The event concludes today in one final, winner-take-all race in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Oracle Team USA completed a miraculous comeback after being down eight races to one against Emirates Team New Zealand.  The final race begins at 4 pm EST.

This year’s contest features 72-foot catamarans (twin-hulled sailboats) that rise-up on hydrofoils when the breeze is right and can reach speeds of 50 miles per hour.  Most sailboats plod along at about five mph, and folks who recreationally race single-hull sailboats will tell you they have rarely been on a boat that exceeds 10 mph.  The hyrdofoiling breakthrough is one that will transform sailboat racing forever.  How dramatic is this increase in speed?  Imagine if drivers in NASCAR were going 300 mph.

Having spent many of my formative years on sailboats with my father and brothers and racing from point-to-point in South Florida and beyond, I can certainly preach about life lessons learned from my experiences.  Being in a competitive atmosphere with grown men teaches you a lot of things: teamwork, the chain of command, how to tell a joke, and perhaps most importantly, when to keep your mouth shut.  Business lessons abound too as forethought, local knowledge and precise execution, for example, can help you come out ahead against a faster competitor.

Aside from the dramatic comeback, this year’s America’s Cup will be known for innovation – and not just the engineering success of getting a boat up on foils but also innovation in marketing and merchandising.

First, a little history:  The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy and actually isn’t a cup at all.  It’s a 165-year-old sterling silver ewer – a bottomless pitcher.  And it isn’t named for the United States of America.  The first race was a 53-mile contest around the Isle of Wight in the northern English Channel which the yacht “America” won by defeating 15 English rivals.  It was a big deal at the time as Queen Victoria herself watched the race and was reported to have asked who came in second place.  The famed answer: “Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.”  (One of my favorite quotes of all time.)

The yacht “America” took the pitcher, err…Cup, back to the United States, and a series of challenges by other nations ensued for the next 100 plus years, which the U.S. successfully defended year after year.  Interest in the Cup races was largely the domain of the narrow sailing demographic until 1983 when an Australian boat with a famed winged keel won the Cup and took it Down Under.  The U.S. won it back in the Cup’s first fully televised series in 1987, and then politics took over.  Strange challenges to the Cup, both legal and nautical, arose for the next 25 years, and interest waned considerably in the United States until an American team with the backing of tech billionaire Larry Ellison of Oracle returned the Cup to U.S. soil in 2010 after a 15-year absence.  Ellison and his team chose to defend the next challenge in San Francisco Bay, setting the stage for today’s dramatic conclusion.

In my opinion, innovation rules the day in San Fran.  The massive winged sails, which I originally found to be very unsightly, create tremendous lift and boat speed which is unmatched in the world right now.  In prior challenges, Cup boats were constricted by specific design requirements, and one could easily find boats faster than those raced in the America’s Cup.  Not anymore.  The new catamarans are the fastest sailboats on the water and have shocked the sailing world by rising up on their foils (even sailing upwind) and dazzling crowds by consistently hitting speeds never seen before.  The boats are big, fast and different – and this has made the Cup races much more compelling.

The marketing, merchandising and PR for the Cup also made big strides.  Ellison chose to have the races in San Francisco Bay, featuring picturesque views that would make any sports television producer gush.  In every telecast, you see downtown San Francisco, the Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and Sausalito.  And the boats are so big that you can actually watch races from shore and have a sense of the action.  And because each race finishes on the waterfront, the winning boat typically makes a high-speed flyby to the delight of fans.

On television, the races are also spectacular.  Each boat is fitted with multiple cameras for viewing of activity onboard as well what’s happening on the other boat.  Helicopters circle above for close-in shots of the action, and it seems that no expense has been spared in computer animation to explain the wind and current, racing tactics and even how “dirty air” coming off of one boat affects the other.  This is nothing like anything the sailing world has ever seen in explaining the finer points of the sport to the average viewer.

It’s been an exciting couple weeks of sailboat racing, but it’s not too late to get caught up.  The final race starts at 4pm EST on the NBC Sports Network.  Check it out online here: http://stream.nbcsports.com/liveextra/



Author: John P. David

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