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Published On: January 1, 2014Categories: Features, Projects

San Francisco fabricator Liz Diaz scores high-profile job designing and building course markers for 2013 America’s Cup races.

Even on the water, the old real-estate adage holds true: It’s all about location, location, location.

Or in the case of San Francisco Bay MFC Liz Diaz, it’s the corollary “being in the right place at the right time.” That’s how she scored the enviable job of designing and building the set of bright red race course markers of the 34th America’s Cup, which turned out to be among the most dramatic events in the 162-year history of the series.

Down eight races to one in a “best of 17” to the team from New Zealand, the Yanks improbably won the next nine consecutive races (plus two penalty heats) to mount a most amazing comeback. And they likely couldn’t have managed it without Diaz’s course markers.

“About a year ago, the America’s Cup race committee located their fleet of chase boats and course marker boats near the same pier that I’m on,” Diaz said, noting her North Beach Marine Canvas shop, which specializes in award-winning yacht interior work, is located on Pier 40, adjacent to the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park. “We had done repairs and reupholstery for their boats over the year they were here so we were a resource for them.”

“This spring, they realized the racing AC 72s were really going to ‘fly,’” Diaz said, “and that they could leap to leeward up to 40 feet when they rose up. It would be just too unsafe to have people on the course marker boats with the racing boats flying out of the water as they came around the marks.”

The course marker boats were large catamarans from which officials and VIP spectators observed the races. They also functioned as the actual course markers that the AC 72s sailed around. But their duty became increasingly dangerous as the racing boats became more sophisticated and reached such speeds that when they literally flew out of the choppy waters of the Bay; should one of them hit an observation boat, the occupants would be in serious peril. And so they put their heads together to come up with an alternative to the marker boats that could provide all the radio information yet be unmanned.

The race committee decided to replace the on-water observers with “markers,” highly visible fabric “cones” that also protected radio equipment that sat upon floating trampolines. And they needed a prototype in a hurry.

Having worked with her in the recent past, race official David Powys, fleet manager for America’s Cup Race Management Ltd., approached Diaz—a master fabricator who usually works alone or with a design assistant, and who subcontracts a lot of her work. “They walked in in June and said, ‘We have this concept, and we need something immediately,’” she recalled.

“I was thrilled!

“My thought was to design them and out-source the fabrication,” she said. “I wanted to keep it local, but I couldn’t find a resource to move as quickly as needed. So we designed it like a paper doll. My assistant, Sareeta Patel, used our PatternSmith software with the Revolver application to develop the shape, and we added all the details necessary into the graphics so when we received the 45-by-15-foot graphics, we could simply get it under the sewing machine, add the pieces necessary as it was sewn, and it would be done almost instantaneously.

“I needed overnight printing of the graphics, so I called Echod Graphics in New York who could get them back to me over night,” she said. The conical-shaped markers resembled tepees sitting on the water, 15 feet in diameter at the bottom and 15 feet tall on top of the trampoline, capped by radio antennas.

“I wanted to design them because I like to design unique things,” said Diaz, who has been sewing since childhood, when she made doll clothes out of material scraps her mother provided. A native of Portland, Ore., she initially moved to San Francisco after studying architecture and graduating from Portland State University. She became a corporate headhunter, and had an office high in the iconic Transamerica Pyramid office tower. But within five years, a lifelong calling to work outdoors lured her back to the water, where she could pursue her passion for sewing. Her architecture studies helped her visualize design in three dimensions, and making boat cushions evolved into a job designing boat interiors, which she’s been at since 1986.

“My life is about lifestyle,” she said.

After the America’s Cup race, the course markers were auctioned off, including one that went to the Junior Sailing program at the South Beach Yacht Club. “It’s an effort to get kids involved in sailing,” Diaz said. “We have a shortage [of sailors] compared to New Zealand and Australia.”

Besides working on the interiors of others’ boats, Diaz owns a 1951 Japanese-built sloop, a Maya. A member of Master Mariners, she races once a year with a women’s sailing team. She also has sailed tall ships in the North Sea and the South and North Pacific, and supports junior sailing events in the Bay Area where she serves on the steering committee of SailSFBay.org.

Jim Tarbox is the editor of the magazine.