THE BLOG

A Cup of Caen: The Spying Game

08/06/2013 10:17 am ET | Updated Oct 06, 2013

Tomorrow we will finally get to see Artemis Racing and Prada take to the America's Cup racecourse to do battle in the Louis Vuitton Cup Semifinals, so I wanted to spend today on the subject of what it really takes to dominate in the America's Cup. I am not talking about teamwork, resiliency or athletic prowess. We are not going to discuss boat design, the intricacies of daggerboards and rudder elevators. And we certainly are not going to talk about the effort required to get these gigantic craft ready to sail consistently every day.

Nope, today we are talking spying!

One of the glorious aspects of the America's Cup is that, along with everything else (location, boats, etc.) that has to be decided every go around, the teams get together and decide the proper way to spy. That's right -- not only does this event condone spying, it is actually written into the rules. Think about that for a second. Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots became a pariah in the NFL when he was caught spying. Teams in baseball practically go insane when they think another team is stealing their signs. But in the Cup, it's just part of the whole circus.

Last week when I was onboard the Oracle boat, we sailed past the Artemis catamaran and the Oracle crew gave them a big cheer, welcoming them back to The Bay. It was a happy, compassionate moment from the local side, which made it even more amusing that an hour later, when I was on an Oracle support boat, we were chasing down that exact same blue Artemis boat. Next to me was Matthew Mason, who as well as being a grinder for the team, is also one of their top spies. We had the boat full speed as we labored to catch up with Artemis as she flew through the south bay heading back to Alameda. And as is often the case with spies and the Cup, we were not the only ones out there. Positioned between us and Artemis was one of the chase boats for Prada, the Italian syndicate. Both that boat and ours were doing the same thing, trying to line up with Artemis and match her speed. That information plus the angle at which we were heading would be added to their dossier on the Swede's new boat.

Mason is infamous at this point for his actions down in New Zealand last winter, where he ran afoul of some of the rules around spying. The rules state that no team may approach another teams within a prescribed distance, but Mason figured out a clever workaround. The Prada boat would come out of their base the same way every morning, so he just parked his boat in front of the channel and then cut his motor. When the Prada boat swept past, yelling and screaming at the trespasser, in reality they had approached Mason, not the other way around.

At least that's how Oracle saw it. The America's Cup jury thought otherwise and docked Oracle five days of sailing practice for breaking the spying rules and getting too close to Prada. Back up in the Bay Area, the Oracle team quickly dubbed the break "The Matthew Mason Memorial Holiday." It was the beginning of an eventful tour of duty for Mason. He was particularly interested in the 33-foot catamarans that the Kiwis used to first try out sailing on foils. Every time one would come out, he would shadow it in a chase boat. Mason explained the Kiwis' counter-maneuver. "They were pretty on edge about us watching them and I am sure it was annoying. They had two little 33s where they learned to foil and we would be watching those and one boat would go off one way and one would go the other way and they would split them and then the boat that we were following wouldn't do much. That was ploy with them."

And so went the cat and mouse down in New Zealand. At least Mason was able to stay hidden for a short period, unlike the fate that befell Artemis Racing's Adam May. "I got caught by the local TV there the first day in town," said May. "I was pretty obvious with the large lens on the other side of the viaduct and they spotted me pretty quickly and that night I was named and shamed on the national news."

In years past, teams have gone even further in search of that one edge that will guarantee a victory. In 1992, Mason was with the New Zealand team in San Diego, and told me the following tale about a scuba spy. "We were launching one day and we had one team in the water, and we had one guy look down twenty feet off the dock and he saw some bubbles coming up to the surface and yelled at some of our young guys, and they dived into the water. This guy started about a mile away and got about 100 feet from the boat and we dragged him out of the water and then we had the police come down and arrest him."

Adam May had a similar experience, albeit on land, the last Cup in Valencia, Spain. "There are plenty of schemes and disguises but you soon pick out who are the spies and you have a folder of who are the spies of the different teams and what people are looking for," says May. "One day I spotted someone from another team, and he was at the end of the dock and we were both looking at each other guessing whether we were both in the spying game. I tailed him back on a bike and he is on his bike looking around to see if I am following him. So he overshoots the base and he thinks he has lost me, so he circles back around and glances around and walks into the back entrance. It's quite the comedy."

The tales may be comedy, but the results are no laughing matter, since one wrong call could doom a team. The hardest part for all the spies is to balance their own development with the perceived benefit of a change. Says May, "that's the hardest bit about the whole thing, quantifying the difference of where someone is and where you are. You might measure some speed numbers and values but if you aren't sailing at the same time and similar wind conditions its always little subjective to actually get a comparison. It is always experience and a gut feel that comes into play. "