San Francisco set for sailing

SPEEDING TOWARDS SAN FRANCISCO: America's Cup yachts race towards the city shore in the lead up to next year's regatta.
SPEEDING TOWARDS SAN FRANCISCO: America's Cup yachts race towards the city shore in the lead up to next year's regatta.

It is a rare sunny August afternoon in San Francisco. There are a few hundred people milling about the temporary America’s Cup Village, hastily assembled earlier this week on the Marina Green. The $25 a head grandstand is full, and people are packed four deep for a few hundred yards down a footpath that follows the water line.

It is the third day of racing for the America’s Cup Challenger Series. It is one of a series of trial competitions for cup challengers and defenders, taking place in smaller boats to what they all shall contest in next year.

Team New Zealand is first up for the day, and vanquishes the JP Morgan-sponsored British boat with ease. The crowd responds with a subdued golf-clap. Half an hour later, victory for the Russell Coutts-helmed Oracle boat with the American flag on its sail gets an exponentially more excited response. I am struck by the urge to point out to the people around me the true nationality of the US skipper, but I stop myself.

CITY OF SAILS: Rows of pretty-town houses on Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower watching over the sailing action on the harbour.
CITY OF SAILS: Rows of pretty-town houses on Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower watching over the sailing action on the harbour.

The atmosphere in the makeshift cup village is muted, if content. Visitors pour through gift stores for mementos. A Red Bull tent is now open. A few are reclining in Napa Valley-sponsored bar areas, or walking the premises with plastic bowls of chowder from food stalls.

A fleet race gets underway, with all 11 boats competing against each other. The race is being narrated over the loudspeaker by an American and British commentator. The American calls the race a little bit like a horse race, while the Brit has an air of the BBC.

Yachting is a strange spectator sport. It is hard to see who is in front and when, and lead changes and turns elicit only small responses from onlookers. The crowd has the feel of the novice, pulled in by curiosity and blanket advertising citywide, and reacts most viscerally to an occasional stall, or near collision. From the shore, you’re divorced somewhat from appreciating the sheer physical labour that is going in to directing each boat.

The harbour is crowded with boats but the 45-foot catamarans move faster than anything with or without a motor. Standing in the sun, looking at the masts set to the backdrop of the majestic Golden Gate Bridge, framed by rolling Marin County hills and Alcatraz Island, there is an undeniable handsomeness and meditative quality to this setting.

The racing was underway and people were out to take it in, but the finer details of the America’s Cup remain a mystery to most locals. I’ve spent a lot of time extolling the minutiae of the cup to Americans, as a New Zealander in San Francisco recently.

It’s humbling to realise that while I was up as an 11-year old, wearing my red-socks with Mum and Dad in front of the TV to witness the gallant Sir Peter Blake vanquishing the Yankee heel Dennis Connors, Americans were doing other things.

Not only were they not paying attention to our glorious mid-1990s uprising, but the whole fuss over a mega-budget yacht race is, simply, all a bit weird for them. Locals seem to be most caught up in speculating what the cost of this to the city will be, and whether there’s any truth to the rumours that they will be able to rent out their houses at exorbitant rates next year.

At the start of the America’s Cup debut week in San Francisco, I stood on that same Marina Green, amidst a mess of moving trucks and workmen preening the space. Headquarters for each yachting syndicate had been established, and I spent a small moment in front of the currently empty New Zealand space appreciating my national flag, which was getting hell in the cold, whipping San Francisco wind.

The entire Marina smelled of freshly cut grass. A small museum had been erected to the side of the single grandstand; New Zealand’s two victories did not even take up half of one of the dozen or so displays. Several crews were out practicing on the water and the size and speed of the boats prompted several locals to stop their strolling and take a gander out to sea.

New Zealand is no longer at the centre of the America’s Cup narrative. But rather than offer up an opportunity for me to relive my own memories of national glory, San Francisco’s America’s Cup schematics offer up engagement with one of America’s most elegant cultural hubs. Which is enough.

Unlike a city like Wellington, San Francisco is less a city on the water than a city surrounded by water. The course itself reaches out almost as far as the Golden Gate Bridge in one direction, and then stretches back in front of Alcatraz, and down the waterfront halfway down the Embarcadero.

The Marina Green offers the most central view of the races. It is a few blocks over from Chestnut Street, where the bars come alive on Friday and Saturday evenings as the younger, financially prosperous Marina District residents unwind. Fort Mason, a surviving vestige of San Francisco’s role as a frontline of America’s naval infrastructure, sits to the right, and the Presidio to the left. From this viewpoint no part of the course is completely out of sight.

On Tuesday, the second practice day, I trekked up to the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge is a mixture of practicality and art, an entry statement that few cities can best. From here, the four corners of the course look close enough to touch. San Francisco’s dense, clustered, curved downtown sat in the background. An Oracle boat turned right under the bridge, groaning and grinding in the turn but then catching the wind and moving off at considerable speed.

The top of the bridge and the hills behind were dipped in fog. The August weather presents the only downside to enjoying the boats in San Francisco. From all perspectives of the course you’re vulnerable to the wind that blows constantly in the city. The months of high summer, August especially, see an almost omnipotent fog spread over much of the city. A good jumper will be mandatory next year.

The main cup village will be on Pier 27 and 29, thirty minutes walk from Union Square downtown. The planned village is currently under heavy construction, and huge banner ads for the cup next year impair much of the view. The worksite was hit by a fire recently, and is a wasteland of concrete, from which the proudly displayed artist’s interpretation of the slick multi-million dollar development will rise out.

On the first day of real racing, Wednesday, I strolled from this building site down into Fisherman’s Wharf. From my perch on the pier it almost seemed as if I could throw a rock over to Alcatraz. The wharf is a tourist pit of souvenir shops and street performers.

The racing seemed much further away from here, a mile out from the Marina, and the only audible cheers were for a street performer painting at speed to bracing techno-music. The contours of the geography were still hard to resist. Rows of pretty-town houses on Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower sat behind me, watching over my shoulder. Seals sunned themselves by the docks and elicited squeals of joy from onlookers, myself included.

Over the weekend as the event concludes something approaching cup fever takes hold on the Marina and around 100,000 people stream through for a look. In both fleet and match racing, New Zealand finishes back in the pack.

Nothing is too far from anything in San Francisco, and how much of this crowd relates to the boats, or the prospect of a day out and a party, would be a good source of debate. But even for a yachting novice pulled in by chance, a city this compact and rich in sights housing a race this historic and grand is a knockout.

The America’s Cup may no longer be New Zealand’s Cup, but it’s still something. As excuses go for a visit to San Francisco, it’s a hard one to beat.

Read more in James Robinson's blog Voyages in America.