The Leaking America’s Cup

Hey, the famous America’s Cup Yacht Races are happening right now in San Francisco Bay!  Hey, really, is that exciting or what; you can watch this immortal series, cheer for your favorite boats, see thrilling…are you listening to me?  Is anyone watching?

What a bust.  The Chronicle loyally slips an annoying page-and-a-half sheet about it over the front page every day, that I have to peel off and discard.  I have not heard a word of conversation about it anywhere and I don’t know anyone who has a clue who’s winning.  Or knows who’s even racing except Larry Ellison, whose brainchild this stinker was and who is spending $80m to put two of the boats in the water.  Fifteen teams have shrunk to four, and the hopes of the city making money have evaporated.

What happened here is that Ellison (and the whole arrangement, including the design of the boats that would compete, is his call) completely misunderstood what’s important about the sport, and what’s not.  What he thought was important, and would gin up public engagement with the sport, was going fast, so the boats, if you can call them that, are enormously expensive catamarans with rigid airfoil sails and hydrofoils that can lift the hulls out of the water.  Wow, they really go fast! But they don’t have any of the tradition of real sailing; no spinnakers or even Genoa jibs (at least not in any pictures I’ve seen yet) to balloon out on downwind legs and change at the turn, practically no rigging, no worrying about luffing. Most important, they have nothing to do with what constitutes sailing for people who sail, whether dinghies or ocean racers.  They are capable of nothing except course racing: they have no cabins, you can’t sail them to anywhere or take your friends out for a weekend trip, and  they are extremely dangerous in unprotected waters (trimarans and catamarans have, last time I talked to a sailor, a very bad record of leaving port and not coming home).  One of these even killed someone right on the bay earlier this summer.

But they go really fast.  Here is where Ellison got it wrong, because extremely fast is what power hydroplanes do even better, and make more noise doing it – got a lot of friends who follow that sport?  Losing the culture, aesthetics, and spirit of yachting to just go fast is sort of like trying to make music better by playing it louder with a bigger amp, or “improving marksmanship” by putting lots of processing power into the rifle. Ellison browbeat and bullied everyone into playing a game by rules amusing to him, and in the end almost nobody came, nobody is watching, and nobody cares.


Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

30 thoughts on “The Leaking America’s Cup”

  1. Well, I’m not sure the lack of interest is to do with the disconnect
    from recreational sailing. I’d think it’s more to do with the American
    team a) losing badly so far, and b) being caught cheating. The score
    at the moment is 7-1, and NZ only needs 2 more wins to take the cup.
    Americans wouldn’t have cared much about cycling (not that they ever did
    all that much) if Lance Armstrong had written the rules for defending his
    Tour de France title, been caught doping, and then finished 20th anyway.

    I’m open to the possibility that these fast high-tech yachts might be able
    to have an entertaining competition – though the risk seems to be, as with
    Formula 1 racing, that the outcome is largely determined by invisible
    and largely incomprehensible engineering issues before the actual races
    even start.

    It will be interesting to see what rules the winners for the next

      1. No, not quite. As I understand it, the first two races won by the
        penalized team would be nullified by the penalty. So it started
        out 0, -2 (kinda sorta) before any actual racing. At one point it
        was 4, -1 (i.e. the challenger had won 4 races, the defender had won 1).
        Right now it’s 7, +1. The challenger needs 2 more wins; the defender
        needs 8 more wins. Anyhow, barring some strange turnaround, it’s a blowout.

    1. Yes. But I’m not sure that the gap between recreational yachts and Americas Cup catamarans
      is any bigger than the gap between a Toyota Camry and a Formula-1 race car, and F1
      manages to be quite popular.

      1. The gap is vastly, incomprehensibly greater.

        I drive a Toyota. I could drive a Formula 1 car. Not race it, but drive it. I play golf. I could play on the Augusta National course. Not break 90, but play there. I can watch the Grand Prix of Monaco or the Masters Golf Tournament and think “Gee, if I had started young and really worked at it, maybe I could have done that.”

        There’s no way on this Earth a competent recreational sailer could drive Larry Ellison’s America’s cup boat. There is no attachment for a spectator to think “with a little more talent and an early start, I could be doing that.”

        1. Yeah, you could drive an F1 car. But you couldn’t drive it at 200+ mph
          in traffic for 50 laps.

          And as for crewing an Americas Cup boat, hell yes, the crew are precisely
          competitive sailors from other classes of boat who’ve worked hard to
          develop their talents. What do you think they are ? Ex-astronauts ?
          Androids ? Aliens from from a Waterworld planet ?

        2. Reading between the lines, it seems to me that your big beef with the AC72
          yachts is not actually the multi-hull configuration, which of course in
          common in smaller yachts, but the rigid wing sail. However, while it’s
          unfamiliar, that feature surely makes the boat much *easier* to sail,
          not more difficult – just rotate the sail to the desired angle and you’re
          done. No worrying about raising and lowering sails, adjusting the tension etc.

          I get that you guys don’t like the AC72 yachts, and that’s fine. I don’t think
          your particular reasons make much sense. I don’t much like them either,
          bu mostly because they put too much of the contest in the hands of the designer,
          rather than the crew.

          Interestingly the Volvo Ocean Race is moving from the box-rule Volvo Open 70
          class to a one-design Volvo 65 (both canting-keel).

          1. The AC-72s are great fun to watch and the crowds last weekend were very large.

            I also understand how there is a disconnect these boats will never be common. The only way to get them to stop moving is the actually remove the wing/sail with a crane. Even though it might be easier to sail them when the wing is attached the boats could never be common given the storage difficulties.

  2. I think that multi-hulls are at least as safe as single-hulls, if they are designed for safety. (My father sailed a Dick Newick trimaran as a tourist boat between St Croix and Buck Island.)

    1. As it was explained to me, a single-hull with a keel will usually right itself if it’s knocked down, not capsize, so you still have a boat to float in, while a cat or a tri will not, can’t be stood up by the crew, and winds up stably upside down breaking apart.

      1. I’m not sure the “can be stood up by the crew” applies once you get beyond a certain size of boat,
        even for single hulls. And the kind of design choices they’re making for racing boats, in
        particular making them really light and with large sail area, are not at all what you’d choose
        for safety or seaworthiness. F1 cars don’t have much in common with Volvo station wagons either.
        But most of the population is perfectly fine with watching a somewhat dangerous sporting
        competition, whether it’s NFL football, F1 racing, the Tour de France, or heavyweight boxing,
        as long as they have someone to root for, and a close contest.

        I don’t think making it a race between slow, heavy, safe boats is the answer. Something more
        like Olympic sailing, where the boats are highly standardized and the skill of the crew is
        paramount, would seem more promising.

        1. My father was a sailor before moving to Tennessee; I grew up in Tennessee and am (obviously) not a sailor at all.

          But wrt to Something more
          like Olympic sailing, where the boats are highly standardized
          –wasn’t that one of the features of this World Cup?

          1. No. It’s being sailed with AC72-class boats,
            which specifies certain maximum dimensions, max weight etc, but leaves much
            latitude to the individual designer. Apparently in Aug 2012 the NZ team was
            observed to be using a hydrofoil, and that set off a big round of last-minute
            redesigns (which seems to have still left the NZ team with a big advantage
            in raw speed).

            Not an expert on this, but I believe the small yacht classes in Olympic racing
            are much more standardized.

          2. I got into “yacht” racing when I was in graduate school in Kansas, crewing on Lightnings. I’ve watched a part of one of this America’s Cup races, and I was bored to the point of changing the channel.

            Yacht racing isn’t really a spectator sport, even with evenly matched boats because the action takes place out on the water a long way from the spectators. These boats aren’t nearly evenly matched, and so it’s that much less interesting. With monohulls using conventional sails, the televised races are actually interesting, because there is stuff going on (dousing the genoa, raising the spinnaker, jibing the spinnaker, dousing the spinnaker and hoisting the genoa) that is technically pretty involved. Tacking those monster cats could be interesting, too, but before the boats can get into a tacking duel, they have to be pretty evenly matched.

            In the Olympic classes, the boats are generally as alike as humans can make them. (In sailing lingo, these are called one-design classes.) In times past, some rule classes were raced in the Olympics. In fact, the 12 M (former America’s Cup yachts, once J class yachts became too expensive) was an Olympic class.

            As to stability, large multihulls are at a distinct disadvantage if they capsize. Smaller cats (like the various Hobies and Prindles and their ilk) can be uprighted by their crew. Something the size of the AC72s (LOA 86 feet) is not going to be righted by the crew. I can’t speak to the structural strength of large cats and tris. Large monohulls are almost always keel boats, and the weight of the keel will right the hull if it capsizes, although there will be a lot of damage to the rigging (even so far as dismasting the boat).

          3. “weight of the keel will right the hull”

            Provided the keel is structurally intact. I may be wrong, but I had
            the impression that the evolution of fast monohulls was going towards
            a fairly thin low-cross-section low-drag vertical structure going far
            down to a big weight – which would be mechanically weak and subject
            to damage from hitting the bottom at speed. If that’s the case, then
            I’m not sure that an aggressive built-for-speed monohull design would
            necessarily be safer than a multi-hull (which gets its stability from
            going wide rather than going deep). Either way these modern designs
            are the result of extensive CFD and structural modelling, and modern
            composite materials, are built exclusively for racing under a fairly
            narrow range of conditions, and aren’t much like the old wooden-hull
            boats of the 1900’s or maybe even the 1970’s.

        2. Yup, google “canting keel” for the latest in high-performance monohull racing
          designs – a thin deep-draft keel, a big (as much as 6.5-ton) weight, a mechanism
          to swing it from side to side to provide the appropriate turning moment to
          counteract the force on the sail, and tricky sliding seals to keep the water

          And these exotic monohulls have experienced plenty of problems in ocean racing,
          including failures of the keel mechanism which leave the boat incapable of
          righting itself.

          This approach was considered for the 2013 America’s Cup, but rejected because
          no-one liked the idea of having mechanisms which couldn’t be operated by human
          muscle power (and would thus need an onboard engine, albeit not used for propulsion).

          1. Racing anythings are always more fragile than the same things intended for day-to-day usage. I would be surprised to ever see canting keels on cruisers, or even on racing yachts like a modernized Soling or Yngling.

            I thought the discussion of multihulls vs monohulls was in a more general context than racing. For daysailing there isn’t a lot to choose (in my opinion) between a cat and a good planing monohull. The cat is going to be fun on a broad reach, but tacking and jibing are a pain. The monohull (for the sake of argument, let’s say a 470) is going to be fun beating upwind, and even with a spinnaker up is going to be a little boring on the downwind leg.

  3. Well, Larry may not be dong a great job, but the Cup as a respectable event was ruined in 1983. Not by the Aussies winning it for the first time, but by the New York Yacht Club suing to keep the Cup they couldn’t win fair and square on the water. Once the lawyers are invited in to your sport, it’s game over.
    There was one more race under the 12 Meter rule, then Michael Fay unleashed the hounds of folly and irrelevance with his mega-yacht challenge and it was downhill from there.

  4. Yeah! And I haven’t seen a single trireme or quinquireme on the water this year! You’d have thought at least one caravel would have made the cut. What’s happened to tradition? What did a catamaran ever do for anyone other than some semi-cannibalistic Polynesians who populated the Pacific? Is there anything more boring than one of these “hi-tech” catamarans clipping along at double the windspeed? My dudgeon could NOT be higher!

  5. Perhaps my opinion doesn’t matter because it’s not like I cared about sailing before Larry Ellison got involved with the America’s Cup; but this analysis seems like it is trying too hard to beat up on Ellison. Compare with Formula 1 racing. There’s another time-sink I don’t understand, but the appeal seems to be based on high-tech “cars” going fast, and the fact that the cars don’t feature cup holders, trunks, back seats, and the other accoutrements of traditional cars doesn’t seem to hurt the popularity any. There may be some weirdly American thing going on here. As I understand it, while the rest of the world watches Formula 1, Americans watch Nascar, which seems closer to some street car being driven at high speed.

    I think any analysis that faults Ellison has to deal with these sorts of issues, rather than the current fulmination which basically boils down to “yachting was great when any millionaire could afford to buy a boat, but it’s so unfair that now only billionaires can afford a boat”. To my eyes, all Ellison has done is take the game to its logical endpoint. And if that logical endpoint makes no sense, well, guess what, that endpoint of no sense was always inherent in the game. “Let’s compete on going fast — but not too fast”???

    1. The problem with multi-hulls is not that they aren’t stable, but they’re
      bi-stable, i.e. highly stable right-way-up and also highly stable upside-down.
      And thus hard to right when they do capsize – you’ve got to put in enough
      energy to raise one of the hulls the whole width of the boat.
      A normal monohull with a heavy fixed keel, has just one stable position,
      right-way-up, so will tend to right itself.

      A canting keel, like a fly-by-wire airplane, is relying on active control
      to maintain stable behavior in reaction to changing forces. Which preumably
      is fine unless and until the control mechanism breaks down leaving you
      either with a vertical keel that isn’t really heavy enough to give good
      stability, or else a canted keel that only allows you to sail in one direction.

      The guys who are willing to sail that kind of beast thousands of miles across
      open ocean have my great respect.

  6. (Sod WordPress.) Let´s add to Ellison´s charge sheet the death of crewman Andrew Simpson – an Olympic gold medalist, not some careless amateur. Some sports, like downhill ski racing or cave diving, are inherently dangerous. There´s no reason but vanity why short-distance yacht racing has to be.

    1. I think you’re being completely unreasonable in blaming Ellison for that death.
      Sure, the boat capsized, but that happens, and I’d think competitive sailors
      accept ending up in the water as a normal risk of the sport. But somehow he
      was left under the capsized boat for 10 minutes. And, without wanting to
      point the finger at anyone in particular without a full inquiry, I would
      think there must have been some human or organizational error to allow a crew
      member to be missing for that long after a mishap. Water is dangerous no
      matter what kind of boat you’re in.

  7. I’ll also take issue with O’Hare’s original “browbeat and bullied” comment. The deal
    with the America’s Cup is that the winner pretty much gets to choose the rules for the
    next challenge. That’s a rather absurd and not particularly fair way to run a
    competition. But it also means that, as far as I know, Ellison didn’t need to do any
    “browbeating” or “bullying” to influence the decision to use AC72’s. It was his
    decision to make, and he made it. And to be honest, I don’t know if he particularly cares
    whether the competition is popular and generates a profit for other people. He wanted
    to build and race fast boats, he’s spending a bunch of money to do so, the boats are
    indeed really really fast, and what recreational sailors, or the general population,
    think about it, doesn’t really matter.

    This isn’t the NFL or the NBA, which expect to make money. And it isn’t a democracy.

  8. I have some Kiwi cousins in my Facebook feed, and they’re pretty honked off today. At least someone is paying attention!

  9. “in the end almost nobody came, nobody is watching, and nobody cares”

    Today’s SF Chronicle (

    Fans crowd waterfront for America’s Cup finale

    Thousands of flag-waiving sailing fans crowded onto Pier 27 hours before the final race Wednesday … In perhaps the ultimate compliment to the event’s organizers, many Bay Area residents played hooky from work and school to join the crowd.

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