I’ve written about the America’s Cup here several times before – it is my sporting passion, and I’ve followed it for 26 years.
But as I flew from Doha to San Francisco to be a spectator to this year’s event, my expectations were very low.
Only three challengers – one of which had suffered a fatal training accident and hadn’t even sailed its new boat yet – and a whole raft of enforced safety changes which had turned the regatta into a legal battle rather than a sailing one.
This was not what the organisers had either hoped for or promised to the public.
However as my trip comes to an end, I have to say that things aren’t as bad as they first seemed and could be building quite nicely for the finals in September.
Fastest boast in cup history
There’s no doubting that the AC72 class of yacht is astonishing.
Watching on television, I’d seen these boats with their towering 40m hard-wing sails capable of travelling more than twice the speed of the wind – something which I often mention defies the laws of physics.
But in reality and up-close, they were even more dazzling.
In a strong breeze, both hulls lift clear out of the water – “popping up on the foils” as Cup commentators Tucker Thompson and Andy Green love to repeatedly say – giving the impression of flying.
They are super-fast Formula1 racing yachts. And even though they can look incredibly delicate out amongst the wind and chop of San Francisco Bay, insiders at Emirates Team New Zealand told me the AC72s are in fact easier to handle the faster they go, and that the safety recommendations made after the Artemis training accident were perhaps an overreaction.
Even at rest, they are a sight to behold. The unmistakable giant red sail of Emirates Team New Zealand, visible from so many vantage points along the shoreline… and the striking silver-chrome finish to Luna Rossa’s boat, blunted only by the blanket of fog and cloud so often hanging over the Bay.
The spectators' cup
Where this event is truly winning is in its efforts to bring the racing closer to the San Francisco public – a public which I have to say is not necessarily educated in the history and details of the America’s Cup, but is giving it a pretty good go.
Never before has an America’s Cup been raced in-shore, so close to land. And it’s making a huge difference.
Spectators can gather either on the shore close to the Golden Gate Bridge, or at America’s Cup Park – a specially constructed area with viewing spaces, big screens, food and shopping, and a concert pavilion.
The climax is the end of any given race, where the finishing line is approximately 100 metres off the Park. Thousands gather as the winning boat surges in towards them, and then performs a "fly-by" once it’s crossed the line.
Even if sailing is not really your thing, the sight would still impress you.
Isn't that Tom Cruise, the movie star?
Part of winning the public over is making an otherwise niche regatta feel like "an event".
That was surely achieved on July 28, when a slice of Hollywood came to San Francisco.
After watching the race from a hospitality boat, film star Tom Cruise and his son Connor were transferred to Emirates Team New Zealand’s race yacht for a quick blast around the bay. They took the helm, worked the grinders, and posed for photographs.
Not surprisingly it was all over the local news bulletins that night and in the papers the next day. The Kiwi’s managing director Grant Dalton said: “That’s one of the things about the America’s Cup – opportunities money can’t buy. So it’s very, very cool for us.”
But did anyone check the forecast?
If I’m to point out one major drawback to the America’s Cup in San Francisco, it’s the weather.
Yes there’s a good reliable breeze almost every day, eliminating the days of cancelled races due to insufficient wind.
But boy, is it cold!
Not for a minute did I think that summer in California would be like this, but as I learnt, San Francisco itself has a bizarre micro-climate.
Nestled between the cold Pacific Ocean to the west and the warm inland desert to the east, San Francisco in July and August is cold, damp, windy and foggy (see @KarlTheFog and his 20,000 or so followers on Twitter) and actually rather unpleasant for watching sports.
The day I spent out on the water watching and photographing the racing was one of the coldest I’ve ever spent. And even with their high-tech racing suits, some of the sailors have been known to come back to the dock with their teeth chattering from the chill.
For spectators on land it’s marginally better – they’re not getting sprayed with cold sea water – but not by much.
Roll on September
I’m told the weather will have improved come the America’s Cup Finals in September – that’s when the winner of this current challenger series will square-off against the defender, Oracle Team USA.
To me though, it’s another sign that this whole event has been geared towards those finals and the home team (which only has two American team members, as it happens!)
TV commentator Tucker Thompson – himself a former Cup sailor – told me: “what people don’t realise is that this is just the opening rounds. The main event is still to come”.
And he’s right to a degree – the America’s Cup itself will be decided in that best-of-17 series starting September 7, and ultimately that’s why everyone is here.
I just remember previous events I’ve either attended or reported on in Auckland and Valencia where those opening rounds (the Louis Vuitton Cup Challenger Series) were just as important as the Cup Match itself and attracted just as much interest.
That’s not been the case this time around, with far fewer challengers than usual (mostly because of costs) and too many legal hurdles and false starts.
But I give the organisers points for trying, and even succeeding in some areas.
And if – in four years time when the next Cup rolls around – this level of public interaction, involvement and interest can be matched by more teams out on the race course, then the America’s Cup will be a truly impressive sporting event.