Far-seeing `Clouds' casts shadow over AmericaOne's Cup rivals

Australian meteorologist major resource for Cayard


January 05, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Dr. Roger "Clouds" Badham is probably the only person in Auckland who smiles at the shrieking wind and rain lashing the America's Cup course.

Badham is a meteorologist who lives or dies by the accuracy of his forecasts. The wild weather he called for is right on cue, and he couldn't be happier.

"Hey, Clouds," someone shouted above the wind's whistle, "can't you hold it down, just a little?" "Bloody hell," he sighed, looking up at the heavens, "I don't know why I'm in this game."

The America's Cup challenger semifinals have been buffeted by gusty winds. Racing on Day 3 yesterday was postponed because of wind gusts up to 35 knots, and the rules of competition state that races won't begin if winds exceed 18 knots for a five-minute period.

Badham, a small, rotund and balding Australian, is reputed to be the best in the business, which is why Paul Cayard secured his services for his AmericaOne syndicate from San Francisco's St. Francis Yacht Club.

Badham's weather predictions were instrumental in Cayard's Whitbread Round the World Race victory in 1998, and he was the only one to forecast the freakish cyclonic conditions that devastated the 1998 Sydney-Hobart Race fleet. In that late-December race, 90-mph winds created 40-foot seas and devastated the fleet. Six sailors died and scores were injured.

If Cayard is successful in his America's Cup quest, his victory will be due in no small measure to Badham, whose weather predictions, made in July 1998, have formed the basis for the so-far successful designs Bruce Nelson has created for AmericaOne.

"I've made the call," Badham said, laughing, "so now if we lose, Bruce can say, `I gave you a good boat, but Clouds screwed it up.' That's the way it goes. It's a hard call."

In a sense, Badham has his own crystal ball. It's sitting not on his desk, but right in the middle of the America's Cup course: a bright red buoy that senses water and air temperatures, wind speed and direction and transmits the data in a constant stream that flows back to Badham's computers ashore.

Much to the chagrin of every other America's Cup competitor, and not least the New Zealand defenders, Badham is the only one who has it.

Three years ago, scientists from New Zealand's National Institute for Water and Atmosphere positioned the buoy in the center of the Cup course and offered the data for sale. On Badham's recommendation, AmericaOne signed a contract. It was the only syndicate to do so.

"Later, when NIWA realized that no one else was showing any interest, they threatened to pull the plug," Badham said.

"That's when, on my recommendation, AmericaOne purchased exclusive commercial rights until March 2000. The idea then was to [resell] the data, but the more we looked at those numbers coming in day after day, the more we thought, `Wow, this stuff was priceless.'

"That's when the brain trust decided we ought to hold onto this stuff, at least until all the other designs had been put to bed," he says. "Oh, that made us very unpopular. No one loved us after that. But we're here to win, right? Are we going to do that by playing Mr. Nice Guy? Not on your life, mate!"

When this America's Cup is over in February or early March, the decision to secure Badham's water-borne crystal ball is likely to be seen as one of the critical pieces in the whole Cup jigsaw.

Badham has already given Cayard detailed forecasts for the challenger finals later this month and for the America's Cup series in February, and although those details remain confidential, he concedes the weather is likely to be "windy and wet."

Badham points out that although the Cup course is supposed to be laid out in the open waters of Hauraki Gulf, it is in fact bordered on three sides by land.

"That," he said, "means the racing is being conducted in a bay, in which the breeze is inherently unstable."

Shore-based weather stations have given Badham high-quality wind data going back 14 years. He has combined that data with figures from his buoy and other long-term climate indicators.

What he sees in all those numbers is the making of what he calls, "a classic La Nina effect" -- wetter, cooler weather with more tropical lows, more tropical cyclones, with strong east to northeasterly winds.

"I predicted an extreme La Nina effect last year," he said, "and I was right. It looks like the case again this summer, although this year it's not going to be quite so well-defined."

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