BMW Oracle Racing in San Diego

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Visiting BMW Oracle's Multi-hull Trials in San Diego

November, 2008


Photo: ©2008 Gilles Martin-Raget

On a typical weekday in San Diego, the southern waterfront of America’s Finest City is buzzing. Workers surround the newly expanded convention center, a huge new Hilton waits to open, construction is everywhere.

On a small spit of land, sandwiched innocuously between the convention center and Joe's Crab Shack, lies the operations base for BMW Oracle Racing's Deed of Gift trimaran, known affectionately in racing circles as "Dogzilla."  In the outside world larger events swirl around the very future of the America's Cup, but in this small enclave 55 people work daily to prepare this beast in anticipation of a possible bout with Alinghi, representing America's Cup Defender Société Nautique de Genève (SNG). 

This is not your typical America's Cup base.  The layout is utilitarian at best -- team members work their laptops on top of folding tables inside construction trailers or under a covered area near the compound's entrance.  Everything the sailing team could possibly need sits in five shipping containers tricked out like auto racing transporters, with departments such as rigging, electronics, machining, and winch workshops using each space.  A large carpeted area in the middle of the compound serves as an outdoor sail loft -- reason #52 to be in sunny San Diego.

Photos: ©2008 Gilles Martin-Raget

Naturally the "dognormous" boat, using nearly every square inch of something that can't really be called a slip, is the focus of the morning's activity.  Sails are loaded onto the boat with halyards and pulleys and cables -- cables of a size that get everyone's attention and mean no one has to be told to get out of the way.  Even with the sails and sailors onboard, the boat sits elegantly on the water, with very little wetted surface.  Perhaps that's a good thing, given the impossibility of taking the boat out of the water at the end of the day's activities.

Also not typical is the fact that the morning's dock-out has drawn a small crowd, which readily watches the activities from an adjacent parking lot.  Why such little secrecy?  You try hiding a 90-foot x 90-foot boat.

This particular morning has an even greater number of challenges.  The heads of state are gathering -- team owner Larry Ellison arrives this morning for his first experience out on the boat.   Marcus Young, Commodore of the Golden Gate YC, and Norbert Bajurin, Staff Commodore, are also in attendance, as is BMW Oracle spokesman Tom Ehman, back from a stint in Spain.

But on the dock, it's business as usual.  And business as usual means the boat leaves precisely at 11:00 am, no matter what, even if it means that Ellison himself gets transported out to the boat on a RIB.  Six RIBs gather around the boat, four sliding underneath the crossbeams to guide the 90-foot x 90-foot behemoth out of the slip.  When it's "go," it goes -- within seconds the boat and its entourage have cleared the small point outside the compound.  Forty-five minutes later the trimaran will be well out in open water.

BMW Oracle still considers itself in the sail testing/sea trials mode, with two weeks of shake-down conducted last month in Anacortes, Washington, where the boat was built and first launched before being brought to San Diego by barge.  Per the Deed of Gift, the boat was built in the United States and will be modified in the States if the need arises -- the extensive marine industry in San Diego being yet another reason to conduct trials here. 

The trimaran is a sight to see under sail -- not that many boats can keep up long enough to watch.  Sailing at speeds over twice the true speed of the wind (27 knots boatspeed in 12 knots of breeze in one trial), the boat has not yet hit max power.  At those speeds even the simplest maneuvers become interesting.  Take for example the act of tacking the boat:  Tactician John Kostecki grabs the windward wheel to give the helmsman (Franck Cammas of Groupama and James Spithill share the driving duties) time to scramble to the new driving position.  That scramble across the trampoline can be tricky, with the helmsman running on his heels to keep his toes from digging into the mesh, then climbing over the railing to get to the outboard wheel position.


Photo: ©2008 Gilles Martin-Raget

The team has had the experience of flipping their Extreme 40 catamaran -- and if you think falling 30 feet onto the water or the boat is a daunting enough prospect, imagine falling 90 feet.  Hence the 15-plus crew members all wear life jackets not just for floatation, but also, should the need arise, to protect their vital internal organs, and in addition they sport cool-school Australian surf helmets to protect the most vital internal organ. 

Even at such a massive size, the boat is incredibly maneuverable -- but Ehman pictures the team emphasizing timed starts should the boat see a Deed of Gift match. 

And that’s the kicker, isn’t it:  Will there be a Deed of Gift match or not? 

In response, Ehman emphasizes BMW Oracle's position:  "We have to continue to be ready for a one-on-one match with Alinghi, but it is certainly our preference to sit down and work this out."

In a presentation last Friday at the San Diego Yacht Club, Ehman went through the history of how the incredibly successful AC 32 became the current highly-contentious legal battle.  When Alinghi/SNG came out with the protocol for AC 33, he recounted, it was termed "the worst text in the history of the Cup" by seven of the challengers in a letter to Ernesto Bertarelli last year.  Many talked, but BMW Oracle acted, handing SNG a notice of challenge that set the legal row into motion.  Fifteen months later, the America's Cup is still in limbo, awaiting the next decision from the New York Court of Appeals, expected to arrive sometime in February or March of 2009. 

Through December of last year, said Ehman, the team did not expect it to come to a DoG race.  They "half-heartedly" started the giant boat but never imagined getting this far.  It was something they did "just in case."

"We hope never to use it," said Ehman, "but if we have to use it, we'll be ready."

The issues BMW Oracle has with the protocol, Ehman asserted, are simple: SNG/Alinghi can accept or reject team entries with no recourse available, and they can name the officials and change the rules at will.


Photo: ©2008 Gilles Martin-Raget

And so, the trimaran trials continue.  BMW Oracle believes Alinghi is building a boat as big as or bigger than their new 90-foot single-masted tri, perhaps even a 115-foot ketch.  The defender picks the venue, so they believe Alinghi is building the boat to suit the venue. 

In the meantime, we wait.  Or at least we wait until January, when the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series in Auckland puts all the combatants in the same arena, a match racing series using Emirates Team New Zealand's and BMW Oracle’s Version 5 ACC boats.  In fact, BMW Oracle’s USA-87 and USA-98 are on their way to Auckland right now.  That this regatta should be interesting could be the understatement of the coming year….

--- ©2008 Diane Swintal for CupInfo

Also of Interest:

"Dogzilla" BMW Oracle Multi-Hull Photo Galleries:
First Flight
| First Sail | Launching and Unveiling |
Launching Spyshots

BMW Oracle and GGYC summarized some of their ongoing objections to the protocol in a press release (pdf format) last April, and originally did so in a press release (Microsoft Word doc) from July 11, 2007, both available from the GGYC web site

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