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Sea Monsters: There's Only One America's Cup Winner. But There are Many Losers 

Wednesday, Sep 25 2013

Cover illustration by Tin Salamunic.

It's not quite 11 a.m. on the Emirates Team New Zealand hospitality boat, and the bartender is already working up a sweat, cracking open bottles of Steinlager. Beneath a table, someone has trustingly stowed a Louis Vuitton purse; atop it sits a flat of burgers conveniently labeled "New Zealand Elk Sliders with Pickled Toybox Squash." As New Zealand traces its gastronomic roots to Great Britain, the sliders are seared to a puck-like well-done.

Passengers find their way aboard by following a trail of veiled Emirates stewardesses. They smile radiantly and actually glisten in the morning sun.

Kiwi-accented schmoozing commences within the vessel; government officials unabashedly refer to this as "captive time," so it's little surprise when the engines — and the bar — fire up a good two hours before the day's America's Cup races. "We give 'em a lotta Kiwi beer and show 'em a lotta Kiwi tech," explains New Zealand Consul General Leon Grice. There's plenty of both onboard — a technician monitors 11 separate screens re-creating virtual races via data gleaned from the gadget-laden yachts. Grice is outfitted in an All-Blacks rugby jersey, a ballcap, and Adidas soccer flats; he resembles a dad squiring the kids to a Little League game. His colleague assures a would-be investor that, in New Zealand, "We don't have any terrorists. No one's gonna bomb us."

"Leverage" is a word that comes up a lot here. A great deal of Kiwi money has been expended on yachts and beer and elk sliders in an attempt to leverage San Francisco's regatta into something working out better for New Zealand than the host city. On this day, that investment looks to be coming up roses. That would change, and right soon.

But not on this day.

Tech CEO David Darling's captive for the day is a New York investment banker "who has become very helpful for us in the marketplace." Darling helms a New Zealand biomedical diagnostics company called Pacific Edge; he's opened a new laboratory in Hershey, Pa. But no one will confuse his product with a Hershey's Kiss.

Darling deals in urine.

With just five milliliters of the stuff, his tests can determine if you've got bladder cancer. Darling smiles. "You won't have to have a cystoscopy where they jam that scope up your wiener."

Before he can elucidate further, an eerie hush falls over the boat. Emirates Team New Zealand's AC72 catamaran glides close on a practice run. The yacht's incredible size and speed grow ever more apparent as it approaches at a remarkable clip. With a flourish yanked from The Ten Commandments' parting of the Red Sea-sequence, the ship levitates onto its fin-like foils and its left hull elevates high out of the water; it balances with the precision of a gyroscope while cutting through the water at speeds approaching 50 mph. The catamaran passes a scant 30 yards from the awed onlookers before dropping back into the sea, carving up a thunderous froth. A crowd of men and women hailing from a nation in which children learn to sail before they can ride a bicycle gasps in unison. No one has ever seen anything like this before. Considering the human and material losses these boats inflicted upon the America's Cup, it's likely no one ever will again. Knowing this, nobody says anything for quite some time.

And then the talk of cystoscopies begins anew.

Three years prior, erstwhile Mayor Gavin Newsom glided down the City Hall steps, his shiny visage reflected in the even shinier America's Cup trophy. "Who the heck needs the Olympics and the Super Bowl when you've got the America's Cup?" he proclaimed, handing Oracle CEO and yachting billionaire Larry Ellison a key to the city.

Ellison, of course, wanted more. And Newsom's question would soon cease to be rhetorical. The honey-drizzled claims of Cup organizers and their bedazzled government cheerleaders promising dozens of free-spending yachting teams and cavalcades of racing fans never came to pass. Byzantine real-estate deals demanded by Ellison's America's Cup Event Authority in return for a couple of weeks of racing could have bestowed vast portions of the waterfront upon the billionaire, with rent-free arrangements stretching into the 22nd century. San Francisco ended up hosting just three challengers to Oracle Team USA; promises of a windfall on water unsubtly transformed into assumptions that the city might break even after all the visitor-generated taxes were tallied up. That was before Team Artemis' boat disintegrated during routine practice conditions in May, killing Olympic sailor Andrew Simpson. That was before teams were farcically forced into solo "races" sans competition. And that was before the "home team" was nailed in a cringe-worthy cheating scandal, and docked two races in the event finals.

San Francisco was viewed, the world over, as the city sold on the joys of whitewashing a yacht. Supervisor John Avalos' primordial lamentation that "All the members of the Board of Supervisors were fucking played" echoed out into the international press, where its message was clear even in translation.

The best-of-17 Cup finals, by the way, provided all but certainly the greatest racing ever witnessed in the 162-year history of the America's Cup. This is as good as yacht-racing can get. Despite that two-race penalty, Oracle, at one point down 8-1, has engineered one of the great comeback efforts in all sporting history.

But that's a separate matter from the years of organizational acrimony surrounding this event — and its deeply squandered promise. Numerous high-level city officials — the folks who got us into this — confessed to SF Weekly that they would be thrilled to see the next America's Cup held far from here, regardless of who wins.

"In the Host Venue Agreement, there's all sorts of language about defending the Cup here," says one. "I am perfectly happy to send that to the dustbin." Adds another politico, "Can you imagine this as part of a cycle? Dealing with these people" — Cup organizers — "has been so awful."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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