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Setting the imagination racing

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A couple of weeks ago I started the draft of a column in which I made the argument that the America’s Cup was in need of a reboot and that sail-crazy New Zealand was just the country to do it. At that point, it looked as if the Kiwis could stumble their way to a victory.

“You know what 8-to-1 is?” Larry Ellison asked in a press conference when the dust had yet to settle on Oracle Team USA’s remarkable comeback last week. “8-1 is motivation.”

What a difference winning makes. When it looked as if the Cup was all but headed for New Zealand, I wrote: “Exactly what this 34th America’s Cup will mean in the long history of this event very much remains to be seen. Does it mark the start of a new era of super-fast, super-expensive catamarans capable of speeds that most powerboats would have trouble keeping up with on a good day? Or will it cause the pursuit for the oldest trophy in sport to embark on a dramatically different course?”

Those questions and others remain valid. You can find plenty of debate about exactly what and how much technology (if any, some naysayers sneer) will transfer from the AC72 technological wonders to the boats that the rest of us common folk are out there knocking around on. It’s a fair question, even if it’s still far too early to answer it in any comprehensive way.

IBEX show director Anne Dunbar is a big fan of boats, products and processes that represent forward-thinking individuals and companies. I spoke with her when it looked as if Team New Zealand was about to snatch the Cup.

“The stuff they are doing to push the envelope will, in time, trickle down and help the consumer,” said Dunbar, who is also a sailor. “I think it’s good.”

I also talked to designer Bill Prince, who said he, like many others, was initially put off by the radical AC72s. “But in the course of playing devil’s advocate, I’ve come around,” he told me while the racing was still under way.

Why the change of heart?

By putting limits on the boats, Prince said, “we’re doing a disservice to the oldest trophy in sports. While these boats are very different, they are true to what racing is all about.”

Prince is confident that something learned in building or flying these carbon-fiber wonders will “trickle down” to the weekend boater the same way that the technology, say, in the suspension of your 2007 Toyota Camry had its origins in car racing a decade or more earlier.

Time ultimately will be the judge. I hope the legacy of the 34th America’s Cup is something more than innovative TV graphics, a big ratings hike or even a transfer of technology, significant as those are — something older and more deeply ingrained in the human spirit. Call it inspiration, aspiration or imagination.

The sight of these AC72 cats foiling over a choppy bay at speeds exceeding 40 knots was extraordinary, and this for a sport that has long been saddled with a reputation for being too dull for broad spectator appeal. You’ve heard the comparisons to watching paint dry. But this melding of technology and athleticism was, to my eye, spectacular.

Perhaps somewhere out there, a young person watched with so much awe and curiosity that he or she not only will find a way into our industry, but also will have a profound effect on it. Was our next Ray Hunt or Capt. Nathanael Herreshoff watching slack-jawed from the dock of the bay? A future Ole Evinrude, Carl Kiekhaefer, Ted Hood or Jim Wynne? Our next generation of marine pioneers?

Wouldn’t that be some legacy if 20 years hence a leading builder, designer or engineer says, “You know, I remember coming home from school and watching those big America’s Cup cats flying around San Francisco Bay on their foils back in, what was it, 2013 — and that was it. I was hooked. I knew this was going to be my life.”

It could happen.



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