As we all awoke this morning, on a bright and beautiful Wednesday, a weird thing happened: we are still alive! With an odd combination of an American defender that is finding new boat speed at the eleventh hour, and Mother Nature cranking the wind up and canceling several races, the America's Cup is still going on here in the City by the Bay.
And even stranger, people suddenly seem to be paying attention. It's frustrating in a way, that at the very end of the run, crowds are now turning out for what is one of the most exciting Cups ever. Part of the initial disinterest is easy to figure out. First there was the initial haggling and battling between Cup officials and San Francisco politicians. That then turned the Cup into "Larry's yacht race" for a long period of time.
Then we had a "Summer of Racing" that was more a summer filled with one boat tooling around the racecourse with no competition. It became so embarrassing that event authorities shut down the YouTube feed for the one boat races. It was a debatable decision, and deprived the general public from seeing these 72-foot monsters ripping across San Francisco Bay at over 50 miles an hour.
But now, during these incredible America's Cup races, crowds are finally seeing them in action. I went down to see just how many of these people were turning out on race days. On Sunday I headed for the America's Cup Park to do a little market research. I have been watching the crowds build for months, but I was not prepared for the mob I waded into last weekend. I remember the first weekend of the Louis Vuitton Cup, where you could literally stand at one of the pier and roll a bowling ball down to the other end without risking someone's life.
Saturday was a whole different story, a joyous, seething mob waving flags, decked out in patriotic gear and wearing Oracle Team USA clothing. Whenever I want to gauge a crowd, I go talk to the bartenders. The crew manning the Sports Bar told me that Saturday was the busiest day of the entire event. The outside bartender manning the beer taps was unable to pour me my first two selections because the kegs were drained. According to him they were going through beer at twice the rate of the previous weekend.
I suspect a large reason for that was the fact that we are badly out manned on our own home turf. The New Zealanders have shown up in force for the Cup races, moving around in large mobs with team shirts on and beers firmly affixed. They have stuffed Kiwis perched on their hats and forests of Kiwi flags sprouting from backpacks. Mark and Margaret were one couple I spoke to. They had flown up from Auckland for the races. I asked them how much a win would mean for them. "It would be fantastic for New Zealand," said Mark. "We want it back."
A Ben and Jerry truck was parked behind them. I asked them if they could take that home with them, would they pick the truck or The Cup.
"The Cup!" they both promptly answered. How about ice cream for life? Same answer.
Steve from New Zealand ("South Island" he proudly added) echoed this. He and his mates had been here for a week, and they had already acclimated themselves by wearing bright yellow "The City" hats. With New Zealand flags sticking out of them. "This means a lot to New Zealand," he said. "A lot to the Kiwis, big for our country, and we are pretty excited. The folks at home are excited...productivity is going down every day!"
So how about our fans? I ambushed one father and son as they walked down the pier. Turns out they had come out for the Cal/Ohio State football game. When I asked him why they had decided to come down, the father looked at me and simply answered, "it's the America's Cup, it's something we don't experience in Columbus Ohio." I asked him if they were going to be rooting for Oracle, and again I got the same puzzled face. "Of course, we are going to be rooting for the USA."
It's weird that it takes a football fan from the middle of the country to see something that the locals are having trouble with. Maybe it's Larry, maybe it was all the chaos getting the event going, maybe it's just a basic "too cool for school" attitude that we seem to specialize in sometimes. But despite all that, suddenly it feels patriotic down on the pier. When the American team walked out into the crowd the place went crazy, flags waving as the adopted team song "Back in Black" blasted out from speakers. Kids were on shoulders yelling, "Jimmy! Jimmy!" at skipper Jimmy Spithill. It's not quite "Kaep, Kaep!" but then again Spithill is having a better week.
When the tenders starting pushing the American boat off the moorings and into the bay, all the American yachts tied up at the pier hit their horns at the same time, saluting the team as they headed into battle. Across the way, I could see the entire side of the next pier filled with people cheering the boat, again something I had not seen on any previous occasion.
This afternoon, we will see all this play out again. The American defender will push-off and head into the bay to the sounds of cheering and bellowing boat horns. They will pass the hundreds of boats lining the course, and enter the staring area as the television helicopters overhead send all of this out to the world. And I have a feeling somewhere in Ohio, a football fan will turn on his television and root for the USA.