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Postcard from a day with Oracle at the America's Cup

September 14, 2013|By Chris O'Brien

SAN FRANCISCO -- Having written about Oracle at various points over the last decade means I have also followed founder Larry Ellison's obsessive pursuit of the America's Cup. 

The race has always been there in the very distant background, until Ellison and his Oracle Team USA finally won it 2010 off the coast of Spain. And that meant that after some drama, the next cup would be held here, in San Francisco Bay. 

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I'm not a boating person, and frankly, still don't understand much about the tactics or the actual rules of the race. But this past week, Oracle invited a few technology reporters to tag along for a day and watch one of the races. 

I wouldn't say I've exactly caught America's Cup fever. But after finally watching a race, I can certainly appreciate the beauty, the drama and the spectacle the sport provides. 

I hadn't even thought about attending any of the preliminary races, because for the most part, they weren't really races in the sense of the word. Sometimes it was just a single boat sailing because the competition had not had time to repair its boat from a fatal racing accident earlier in the summer. 

In all, for a region that had experienced immense hype leading up the event, it all seemed so anticlimactic. 

But the America's Cup finals started last weekend. And the shift in the Bay Area was noticeable. A friend from the East Coast complained he couldn't get a hotel room in the city. Traffic into San Francisco was ferocious. It seemed, finally, that the race had a pulse. 

I got my first taste Thursday when I arrived at the Oracle Team USA headquarters on Pier 80, in southeast San Francisco. The team operates of out what feels like a giant airport hangar. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside. But this was where the team built the two massive boats it uses to race and train, as well as where the crew members train. 

If you want to get a good sense of the technology and the stamina behind building and racing these boats, check out our stories here and here

After watching the crew members board Oracle Team USA's AC72 boat, we all jumped on a more pedestrian boat that floated us up the coast to downtown San Francisco. We disembarked at one of the two pavilions Oracle has built, places where people can watch the races from the shore or on giant screens showing the races. 

I can't say what the headcount was, but it was a crowded, lively place. For the moment, at least, it seemed the races had finally become the draw the city had hoped they would be. 

Eventually, we made our way back onto a boat that took us into the middle of San Francisco Bay, just in the shadow of Alcatraz Island. There were maybe 100 other boats floating around us, but since we were on an Oracle boat, we were allowed to sneak a bit closer to the race course. 

When at last the race began, and the ships came flying across the water, I finally got it. It was exhilarating to see these crafts moving at high speed, riding up on their hydrofoils, dancing back and forth across each others' paths in some kind of high-stakes tactical gamesmanship. 

They were majestic to watch, giving every appearance of two mid-sized airplanes zooming just feet off the surface of the bay. 

Alas, Oracle lost the race by a wide margin. And it would lose the second of the day, as well, putting it in a deep hole. Challenger Emirates New Zealand only needs to win three more races to capture the cup, while Oracle must win 11.

Here's hoping that Oracle can at least pull out some victories to extend the races a few extra days. Now that these marvels of engineering are finally putting on a show, it would be a shame if the curtain came down prematurely. 


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