by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

FREMANTLE, Australia — A steady rain was falling by the time the skinny guy came out of the boat shed. He was dressed in a T- shirt and khaki shorts, and he poked his glasses back up his nose. All around him, the burly crew members of Stars & Stripes were shaking each others’ hands and picking a restaurant for dinner — a victory dinner, thank you, for they had just won the first race of the America’s Cup final, against Kookaburra III, in the weirdest weather anyone could imagine.

Anyone but their weather man.

“Not bad,” someone said to Chris Bedford.

“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”

Forget muscle and power and all the other sports cliches you are used to. This is boat racing, and what they worry about in boat racing are sails and keels and position and wind. Always the wind. Where’s the wind? Wind is power. Wind determines sails. Wind is victory. Where’s the wind?

On Saturday afternoon here, off the coast of western Australia — with thousands watching from shore and millions watching via satellite — no one could figure the wind. Where was it? In the morning they were saying 18 knots and by noon it was actually less than 10 knots, and the difference, for racing purposes, was not unlike the difference between a Subaru and a Schwinn 10-speed. Where’s the wind?

Kookaburra checked with its weatherman — whose job is to predict conditions up to race time. Minutes before the start, the crew pulled down the mainsail and put up a heavier one. The wind would pick up. That’s what the crew figured.

“Well?” came a voice over the radio.

“It won’t pick up,” said Chris Bedford. It was gut-check time

That was that. The race was almost over before it started. The wind never picked up. Kookaburra III was stuck with the wrong mainsail for these conditions and the wrong spot at the course start. “How did you know?” someone asked Bedford, after Stars & Stripes won the race handily and took a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven series. “How did you know the wind would stay light? Better data? Better computers?”

“Gut instinct,” he said

Gut instinct. The weatherman went on gut instinct. He has the most sophisticated equipment imaginable. He sits in a room in Stars & Stripes’ headquarters, landlocked, miles from the race, and radios to the boat his predictions. He has gauges, computers, printouts and more printouts. Instinct. He went with instinct.

“When I came downstairs after the race started and saw the Kookaburras had changed their sail, I got a sudden chill,” he admitted. “I said to myself,
‘Uh-oh, what do they know that I don’t?’ “

Nothing. It was the other way around. Dennis Conner took Bedford’s suggestion, kept his lighter mainsail on — sort of like picking the better engine — grabbed position on the course, and never looked back. The conditions were fluky. Stars & Stripes was ready for fluky conditions.

The weatherman. Gut instinct.

He grinned and poked his glasses back up again. He is only 22, blond bangs, and is built like, well, like a weatherman. His skin is virtually pale compared to the sun-soaked crew members’. A van of them pulled past in the rain and they rolled down the window. “The famous weatherman!” they teased. Bedford laughed.

“Are you even a sailor?” someone asked.

“Well, no,” Bedford said. “Up to last May I was an undergrad at the University of Michigan. Actually, I’m using this to write my master’s thesis.”

“Your master’s thesis?”

“Yes. It will be called Mesoscale Analysis For The America’s Cup, 1987.”

Naturally. Hey, nobody’s perfect

These are sophisticated boats chopping through the waters. Millions of dollars go into their development. Years of training go into their crew. There are thousands of journalists here for this showdown, and the fancy of this entire country seems to ride on the outcome.

Yet every day, they all wake up and the first thing they must know is, how is it blowing? How much? What can we expect? Where’s the wind?

“Why did you choose the mainsail that you did?” someone asked Kookaburra skipper Iain Murray after the loss.

“We thought there would be more wind,” he said. “Obviously we guessed wrong.”

And they lost. So it goes. This is the most sophisticated kind of warfare, yet it can be decided by a breeze. Race 1 in the 1987 America’s Cup belongs to superior sailing, a superior start.

And it belongs, in some part, to a blond-haired grad student who made the right guess, and who was now standing outside the gate. A drop of rain ran down his glasses.

“Did you predict this, too?” he was asked. “Did you know it was going to rain?”

He smiled sheepishly.

“Actually, I missed this one,” he said.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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