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A Cup of Caen: Hand to Hand Combat

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Today we will turn to something more concrete than my usual ramblings, because tomorrow we are going to have an honest to goodness, we are not kidding here, America's Cup race. You know, with two boats. Both on the course at the same time. Actually racing each other. I know, it boggles the imagination.

Now, thanks to the two trillion dollars in television technology thrown at the Cup this year (ok, so I may have overstated that slightly), people watching down at the America's Cup Park or on YouTube will be able to follow along. There are boundaries. There are cute little logos following along behind the boats like breadcrumbs. There will be boat speeds, wind speeds, and heel angle.

And most of you will have no idea what is going on.

Personally I blame how these things start. Sailing races start in a way that bears exactly no resemblance to any other sport. And just to make things even more confusing for those of you squinting at the screen, it starts before it actually starts.

It goes something like this. The goal is to hit the starting line going as fast as you can right as the starting gun goes off. Sounds simple, right? Turns out it is harder than it looks, and sailors spend an inordinate amount of time nailing these "time on distance" measurements. A good tactician (the guy who tells the guy steering the boat what he should be doing), can look at a turning mark a quarter mile away and be able to instantly calculate how long it will take at the current boat speed to get there. It's also why we freak out people in cars, because we hit holes in traffic other people don't see. Trust me, my fiancée goes through a whole litany of sounds announcing imminent disaster when I am driving.

But these starts are even more insidious than you think. Just in case doing instant calculations in your head was not enough, the two boats enter "the box," the area behind the starting line, five minutes before the starting gun. This is known as the "prestart," and is what I was referring to before; these boats are racing before they are racing. Now the problem is not that you want to spend the next five minutes setting up your launch to the line perfectly, but that the boat next to you is trying to do the same thing.

During the days of the old 12-meter America's Cup boats, the prestart was also known as "the mating dance of the lead-bottomed money gobblers." The boats weave around each other. They duck under, come to a complete stop, and then take off again. At one point you will probably see both boats sailing away briskly from the starting line as if they have decided to toss the whole thing and head to Sam's in Tiburon. The goal during all this is to pin the other boat in a position where you can hit the line as the gun goes off and leave the other boat in the dust.

San Francisco Bay will also be a player in the pre-start, because our powerful tides will come into play during this time. Out on the course, with the boats charging along at 30 knots with just one daggerboard in the water, the tides have minimal effect on these boats. But one of the strategies during the prestart is to "squat" on the other boat when you have them pinned. This means you power down the boat and the two crews eyeball each other as if they are about to send over boarding parties. This is in reality a high stakes game of poker, one boat daring the other to hit the gas first.

And during this moment the tide will be almost parallel to the starting line, meaning the boats are quickly going to get pushed or pulled. Now the crews will have to be calculating not just where they are in relation to the other boat, but also in relation to the tide. But that still seems manageable right? All you are figuring out in your head is the wind, your distance to the start, the time, where you are in relation to the other boat, and the tide.

Oh, did I mention the wind? What the foreign syndicates are already finding out is that not only is the San Francisco Bay home to some of the most powerful winds around, but these winds are not consistent. They build and die, change directions, and sneak up on you when you least expect it. On Thursday, the Italian syndicate powered up their catamaran with about ten seconds left in the prestart and blasted towards the starting line. At which point our capricious wind gods decided to turn off the tap, resulting in the boat crossing the line about three seconds after the starting gun. Welcome to San Francisco!

In ye olden days, the prestart really was everything, with over 90 percent of the boats that won the prestart winning the race. Things are better this year with the boundaries and the new course. According to Artemis CEO Paul Cayard, this year's Cup is the first one in memory where there are passing lanes on the course. Boats will be able to get back in the race if they lose the prestart. But ask any match racing sailor and they will all stake their reputation on this hand to hand combat before the race, the 30 knot combination of ballet and poker that starts every duel. Watch closely, and will see more action in that five minutes than you ever thought sailing could throw at you. It's time to go racing.