AMERICA'S CUP: Out on a mark boat

AMERICA'S CUP: Out on a mark boat

Dave Bloch

Photographers and crew are huddled in the open cabin of the windward mark boat. Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget, Copyright 2012 ACEA.

Sailboat races happen around our Bay all the time; on the Central Bay, South Bay, and even right here on our Estuary. To mark the course, the sponsoring organization (often a yacht club) sets out inflatable temporary buoys, each held in place by a rope attached to a small anchor. Some races might use an existing object, like a permanent buoy, especially in deep water.

As far as I know, this America's Cup series is the first time that boats have been used as course markers. Five bright yellow-and-blue boats are placed out on the Bay, and the racing catamarans have to go around them according to rules set up by Americas Cup race management.

To accommodate the number of media photographers who want to get out on the water during the Americas Cup events, the organizers are augmenting their press boats (small, powerful inflatables) by putting some of us on the "mark boats." Your reporter was out on the Bay for the Wednesday afternoon match races, and it was an intense experience!

Alameda's weather was bright and pleasant on Wednesday, and the San Francisco waterfront was that way, too. But shortly after noon the wind began to pick up, and the fog rolled in. By the time we were loaded in our boats and headed out onto the Bay, it was impossible to see the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz was barely a dark shadow. The wind was blowing in from the ocean at around 20 knots (about 23 mph). The tide was ebbing, which means that the water was flowing out as the wind was blowing in; that creates a lot of chop resulting in a very rough ride!

Our skipper was an experienced pro; the mate definitely had experience on the water but was new to these particular boats. The mark boats are equipped with two powerful outboard motors and some highly specialized GPS equipment, so it takes special training to operate them. The race director, located on the race committee boat, determines where the mark boats will be according to the winds, currents and other factors. (The Coast Guard had placed a temporary buoy in preparation for Fleet Week events; our race director needed to move us a bit eastward, away from that buoy.) Our required position is sent to our boat as data, and it shows up on a large screen in front of the skipper as a green dot labeled "MARK4."

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Our skipper and the GPS tracking screen showing our boat in the very center.

For the next three hours, the job of our crew is to keep the mark boat as close to that green dot as possible. Because winds and currents change, the race director moved us several times; making the course shorter or longer to try and make each race about fifteen minutes long. The racing catamarans sail east first, come around the "leeward" mark boats at that end, and then come back westward to circle us, the "windward" marks. The race director sometimes moved us in or out even during the race, since there was a good 10 minutes after the start before they reached us.

Most of our time out there was pretty uneventful; the racing boats were far away and hidden in the fog much of the time. Our skipper was always busy though. Because of the ebb current, he had to keep the boat pointed to the east (into the current), which placed the open transom exposed to the wind and waves. He was constantly steering and shifting the engines between forward and reverse to keep us in place.

Did I mention it was cold, windy, wet and foggy? We kept warm by moving around and taking turns standing in the cabin, where the seats provided a little protection. But then, we would see the catamarans coming toward us, and we would all get ready. The skipper would give extra attention to keeping our position as accurately as possible; we two photographers got ourselves placed for a good view (It was important to always keep an arm or a leg locked around something on the boat or risk being thrown off by a wave.)

The next minute would be INTENSE. The racing boats must come through the "gate" formed by the two mark boats, and then each one can choose which of us to go around. When a boat chose us, they passed within a few yards, throwing up spray and a strong wake that bounced us around. We fired off pictures as fast as our cameras would allow, doing our best to follow the catamaran around our stern. n the rare case that both boats went the other way, we would zoom in and try to get the closest shots we could.

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China Team comes flying toward us.

A highlight of the afternoon was when the China Team, a new and young team that has come in last in practically every race they've entered, won their match against one of the very powerful Luna Rossa teams from Italy by six seconds! We cheered from our boat as they crossed the finish line, and there was some great noise from the fans on the shore as well. For 25-year-old China Team skipper Phil Robertson, it was his first Americas Cup World Series win.

But perhaps 10 minutes later, we heard over the course radio that rescue boats were being sent to China Team; they had damaged their big wingsail and would not be able to race again that day! That destroyed their chance of making the quarterfinals and moving up in the competition. The Artemis Red team, which would have raced against China Team in the last race of the day, ended up having to sail the course alone. (Although that seemed silly, it's important to note that anything can happen to throw a boat out of a race! Whether there is a second boat or not, EVERY sailboat race is also a competition with nature, and Artemis was required to win it to move on.)

Racing was over at 6 p.m. and we all headed back home. We are looking forward to the next match races! Artemis Red goes against Oracle USA Coutts on Friday. Artemis White is scheduled to race Team Korea today.

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Artemis Red looks ready to land on the other mark boat!

UPDATE 2:42 P.M.: Artemis White advances to the Semifinals! Artemis Racing – White (Terry Hutchinson) and Emirates Team New Zealand (Dean Barker) scored convincing wins in the quarterfinal round of the match racing championship at the America’s Cup World Series San Francisco. Racing on a relatively calm San Francisco Bay – with the wind blowing 9 to 13 knots and a flat sea – Artemis Racing – White defeated young upstart Team Korea (Peter Burling) while Emirates Team New Zealand beat Energy Team (Loïck Peyron).

VIEWING SCHEDULE

Viewable on "California NonStop" digital TV channel 11.2, and at http://youtube.com/americascup

THURSDAY
12:20 p.m.-1 p.m. Match Race Quarterfinals
5:10 p.m.- 6:20 p.m. Fleet Racing

FRIDAY
4 p.m.-4:35 p.m. Match Race Quarterfinals
4:50 p.m.-6 p.m. Fleet Racing

SATURDAY
4:05 p.m.-4:35 p.m. Match Race Semifinals
4:50 p.m.-5:55 p.m. Fleet Racing
6:10 p.m.-6:25 p.m. Match Race Finals

SUNDAY
1:50 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. "Super Sunday" Fleet Race (broadcast nationwide on NBC)

Subject to change, so check http://www.americascup.com/en/events/ac-world-series-2012-2013/san-francisco-us-oct-02-oct-07 for the latest information.

Additional photos are available on Dave Bloch's ACWS 2012 Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/86040218@N03/sets/72157631692667287/