Is big-budget racing really sailing?

April, 2001

By Dodge Morgan
I received a personal letter from Bob Rice, who is arguably the top special-events weather forecaster alive. Rice did the strategic weather planning for my solo, non-stop circumnavigation with American Promise and advised me on weather tactics while under way. He specializes in voyages and high-profile events with sailboats and balloons, giving him a long, long list of clients who are either nuts or rich or both.

The success rate of his clients has been high, but appears to be getting lower as clients become wealthier and their quests riskier. Rice was the weather guru for Team New Zealand when it trashed Prada in five straight for the last America’s Cup. He has now come back to our side and taken on the new Oracle syndicate, sponsored by American entrepreneur Larry Ellison. He was also to provide the weather routing support for Steve Fossett’s maxi catamaran, Playstation, in The Race around the world, just finished.

The next America’s Cup challenge against a New Zealand boat will get under way in October 2002. But Rice is already putting in 70-hour weeks with Oracle in New Zealand There are four fully-manned powerboats on the practice racecourse just for the weather work, each with an Olympic sailing champion at the helm; a 45-foot catamaran, named Rice’s Rocket, is weather central, festooned with computing and communications gear. Oracle bought all the assets of AmericaOne, which included the two race boats, USA 49 and USA 61.

The America’s Cup challenge and The Race have just two things in common, aside from both being motivated by sails: They are accident prone and obscenely expensive.

To quote Rice on the Cup screw-up: “USA 49 and USA 61 have required a good deal of work, including a rather disastrous moment in which 61 lost her keel. That’s about 20 tons of lead in the bulb, plus the fin to which it is attached. Boat ended up on her side and in great danger of sinking. Our weather boats were nearby and managed to keep the end of the rig up at water level. After which floats and pumps were put on board to keep her afloat. The boat was then towed sideways and on her side to the ferry stop on Rakino Island and a barge and crane were dispatched to get her upright. Finally she was lashed to the barge and brought back to base.”

And Rice on The Race screw-ups: “The start on New Year’s Eve 2000 saw a brand-new mainsail and headsail blow out. Playstation limped into Gibraltar. Old sails were bent on and she got underway again, not far behind, but then hit something at the equator which destructed her portside daggerboard. With a daggerboard missing and an untrustworthy mainsail, Steve decided to pull out of the race and head for Miami rather than the Southern Oceans.”

Although I trust that none of us can claim accident-free sailing careers, I’d bet very few of us have pulled off screw-ups of the above dimensions. The editor of Points East would love to hear from those who have (editor@pointseast.com).

I also think that there are only two Points East readers who could afford the cost of such screw-ups (for reasons of privacy, no names will be mentioned here). I estimate the cost of rescuing USA 61 and fitting her with a new keel would buy the average Points East reader’s boat with several years’ maintenance included. The total cost of an America’s Cup campaign is probably equal to the gross national product of a small nation. Steve Fossett’s budget was not blown, by the way, since he plans to challenge the transatlantic speed record under sail with Playstation in April of this year and then attempt a solo, global balloon flight in June.

If this is sailing, then I have been doing something else for the past 50 years. A friend once asked me if I had noticed how some people believe their IQs go up with their incomes.

Yup.