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A Cup of Caen: Building the Box

Posted: 08/19/2013 4:15 pm

Every America's Cup race day, the viewers on the Internet or watching on television are introduced to San Francisco with sweeping shots of the bay and stirring music. Inevitably the first cut is to 72-foot catamarans prowling the racecourse before the start, dozens of support boats swarming around them, and the many different craft of the race management guarding the course, keeping other boats wandering too close. It's quite an amazing spectacle, and made even more amazing because it gets built from scratch every morning.

Imagine watching a Giant's game on beautiful Saturday. You go home thinking of the green of the grass, the smell of garlic fries, and how wonderful our ballpark is. While you are thinking all of this, they tear the whole thing down. And then the next morning they build it all over again and have it ready before first pitch. In essence, this is what happens every race day in the America's Cup. The "stadium" disappears after the race, and then has to come back to life in time for the starting gun.

The reason for this is simple: the Cup has to share the Bay with boaters, ferries, commercial shipping, and the occasional wayward shark. So every morning, there is a frenzied assault on the city's waterfront to take a patch of water and turn it into "the box," the racecourse and its boundary. Starting with the day's briefings at 9am, the next few hours are marked by a nonstop wave of vessels charging out from various parts of the bay to converge on the box and get it ready in time. The tiny (frankly adorable) mark boats emerge from under the Bay Bridge, dragging the inflatable buoys that mark where the boats have to turn on the course. The buoys are almost the same size as the vessels themselves, making for a comical sight as the little tugboats putter into the box with the buoys bobbing around wildly behind them.

Meanwhile the "stake boats" of the Race Management team are starting to build out the edges of the racecourse and define the starting area. These are the craft they get all the airtime and attention, and during the race you will see many of them in the sweeping camera shots from the race helicopters. But if look carefully, you will also see smaller boats on the edge of the box, shooing back the crowd and maintaining order. Some look like Coast Guard boats, but in reality they are members of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. And they are on the course for one reason and one reason only...they love being on the water to help and educate other boaters.

The crews of the Auxiliary don't get paid for their services, and yet they are the ones on the front lines. Officially the America's Cup Race Management is in charge of keeping out interlopers, but with the size of the America's Cup course, stretching from the city's northern waterfront all the way around to almost the Bay Bridge, more assistance was needed.

The Auxiliary was the perfect solution, since they already are veterans of many Fleet Weeks here in San Francisco, where they perform similar duties. The "Aux" is staffed with people who do this on the side, with a large percentage of retirees. But they all share a love of the sea that helps them be the friendly guards of the "box." Linda Vetter is a perfect example. She worked for years for Oracle but she and her husband love being out on the water. And of course I asked if she ever had to push Larry Ellison out of the box during the America's Cup World Series last year. Her answer unfortunately will have to remain a secret for fear of embarrassing our home team.

The box is split into four sections as it snakes down the waterfront, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta. Alpha encompasses the start area, and is a particular problem child when maintaining the box. During the America's Cup World Series last year, several of the larger yachts didn't take the flood tide pouring under the gate into account and started drifting onto the course. Says Vetter, "they are all watching the race and they are all coming [into the course] and to get them all to back up with seven or eight boats behind them is not easy, so that was a big issue if you are on the wrong end of the tide. We almost got pushed onto the course during one of the races. There was just no more room left. "

The middle section is also active early in the morning as the Aux works with the John Dillard or the Raccoon, the two Army Corps of Engineers debris boats. These craft sweep the course almost every day to clear the box of debris and large floating objects, as one wayward log could do fatal damage to a catamaran going fifty miles an hour. In addition, the fact that the Race Committee adjusts the course based on wind and tide can also fool boats along the sidelines. "People find themselves drifting into the action," says Vetter

The action around the box is nonstop for the Coast Guard. Special provisions have been made to create an alley between two sections of the box where the ferries can quickly cross the racecourse. But this area around the Charlie and Delta sections of the box is Vetter's favorite place to watch the races. "It's a nice area where you slide north and south," say Vetter. "You can see them come through the turning mark and then slide south to watch them cross the finish line. So, I am happy to volunteer in that area."

I have a special place in my heart for these sailors. They make no money from their work, but in talking to them you can feel their love of the water and what they do. Long after the America's Cup circus has left town, taking its armada of support boats with it, the little craft of the Auxiliary will still be on the water, helping everyone out for one simple reason: They love our Bay.

 

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