With the final races of the America's Cup set to begin on Sept. 7 between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand, now is a good time to assess what has worked and what hasn't during the troubled "summer of sailing' that started the July 4 weekend on the San Francisco Bay.
Some of it has been an incredible display of what happens when international athleticism, leaps in sailing technology and the unpredictability of nature meet. Some of it has been a series of unfortunate mishaps, cursed circumstances and a tedious parade of egos and controversies --most recently, a strong penalty levied against Oracle for making illegal modifications to its boat--adding weights and therefore adding speed-- during the America's Cup World Series competition last summer.
Because of the penalty, the odds have changed for the 2013 finals. Emirates New Zealand needs to win nine races to take away the America's Cup. Oracle Team USA must win 11 races to keep it and it must do so without the participation of its key crew member, Dirk de Ridder, a primary wing trimmer. The penalty excluded him and a few on-shore Oracle team members from participating.
Maybe the penalty will intensify the suspense around these final races, generating the excitement the event has so far failed to deliver. Maybe it will just hover over the proceedings like the other dark clouds that have dampened the event up to this point.
We will know more starting this weekend. Until then, here is what has been inspiring about the America's Cup so far --and what definitely has not.
Most Heroic Moment: Artemis Returning to the Water
Two and a half months after capsizing, Sweden's Artemis Racing eased its boat back into the San Francisco Bay. The team worked day and night to repair the 72 ft. catamaran so it could race again. It took equally as long to repair their spirits as the tragic accident resulted in the death of a crew member, Andrew Simpson. Although Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge handily beat the team in its races, Artemis, and specifically its skipper Iain Percy, a close friend of Simpson's, demonstrated courage as they faced the abyss and carried on anyway.
Best America's Cup Style and Design: Luna Rossa
With Prada, the iconic Italian fashion label as its sponsor, Luna Rossa Challenge wins this one hands down. The crew's silver, aerodynamically designed uniforms resembled elegant space suits, something a modern day version of Flash Gordon might wear. The crew's uniforms visually synced with the beautiful styling of the Luna Rossa boat.
Best Technological Advance on the Water: Foiling
Foiling-- the technical term is actually hydrofoiling--occurs when the America's Cup 72 ft. catamarans appear to fly as both hulls rise out of the water and the entire craft sails above the surface. Only dagger boards and/or rudders tether the boats to the ocean as the vessels accelerate to speeds as fast as 50 miles per hour. It is a breathtaking feat.
Best Technological Advance off the Water: TV Graphics
This America's Cup was designed to raise the visibility of the regatta and position it more like an extreme sport. That meant television. Enter Stan Honey, who created the on-screen graphic of the first-down line seen in televised football games. For the America's Cup, Honey devised graphics that visualize the boat's maneuvers on the water and map the forces at play in sailing, including the wind. The final races will be televised around the world. NBC will broadcast in the U.S.
Best Party Moment
The weeks of Louis Vuitton Cup challenger races met with plenty of upsets. One of its best moments turned out to happen off the water on opening weekend, when the French fashion house threw a lavish gala at the Legion of Honor museum. Besides the dancers twirling inside large plastic bubbles, a live orchestra and endless food and champagne, the evening's highlight was an avant-garde fashion show.
The World of Wearable Art from New Zealand created five costumes that conceptually represented each team with a cheeky, chic twist. The ensemble inspired by the Louis Vuitton Cup itself capped the show, but all of the designs exhibited the imagination that so many of the challenger races lacked.
Best Place to Watch the Races in Person
Marina Green Grandstands at the America's Cup Village. You can see much of the race course from a reasonably high vantage point while still keeping an eye on the big screen, which televises close ups of the boats and crew as well as expert commentary. Price for grandstand seats: $75 and up. If you arrive at the Marina Green early, you can stand on shore and approximate the same experience for free.
Best Place to Cheer the Teams
Pier 27, America's Cup Village, where the finish line is. At the end of each race, the boats sail close to shore and wave to the fans.
Best Place to Hang Out with a Fabulous View
The upstairs Puma Bar at America's Cup Park. Or for an indoor-outdoor experience that's nearer the pier's edge, the Sports Bar. (Just be prepared for $12 drinks.)
Best International Injection into San Francisco
New Zealand. This is the only team where the home country contributed significant funds to the race and leveraged the America's Cup as a platform to showcase New Zealand and its culture. San Francisco loves international diversity and the shot of Kiwi cool has been a refreshing benefit of the event.
Worst: The Cheating/The Accusation of Spying
Although Oracle Team USA illegally "modified" the 45 foot catamarans they raced in the World Series regatta that occurred in San Francisco in 2012, it went undetected until a couple weeks ago. Emirates Team New Zealand promptly accused the team as a whole of cheating. Oracle fired back by accusing Emirates of trespassing and spying on Oracle's boat.
The America's Cup jury determined that some team members did cheat but that management had no knowledge of any illegal tampering of the boats. Apparently, bad blood has flowed between Emirates Team New Zealand CEO Grant Dalton and Oracle Team USA CEO Sir Russell Coutts for some time. The illegal tampering needed to be addressed. But all the carping feels like a schoolyard scrap. Perhaps this sport deserves a little more dignity?
Worst: Too high prices
Yes, entry to both the America's Cup Village and Park is free. And yes, it is a high end event, attracting some deep-pocketed participants. But no one wants to pay airport prices for drinks, food, or coffee when lots of other good options exist nearby. Hooray for the food trucks that are stationed on the America's Cup Park premises during race days.
Worst: Local Indifference
You can't really blame the local San Francisco populace. Just when it appears safe to get excited about the event, another controversy or wrinkle sullies the America's Cup waters. Of course, other professional sports contend with problems and difficult individuals all the time, but I guess people are accustomed to that type of drama.
Hopefully, the worst of the bickering and issues are over for the America's Cup and the event can get on with the business of presenting this magnificent sport at its most cutting edge.
Remember, SF: This is a world event that has never taken place here before and may not again. It is free and it offers a fresh way of experiencing the glory of the San Francisco Bay.