America’s Cup

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AmerCup3Setting sail in San Francisco this summer, the historic race gets a tuneup—and the results are anything but boring. 

By Risa Merl

Speed, tight turns and near misses—these are the hallmarks of an exciting sailboat race. This year’s America’s Cup, the 34th installment of the world’s longest-running trophy race, is delivering more excitement when it takes over San Francisco Bay Sept. 7 – 21, 2013, thanks to its cutting-edge boats and the opportunity for fans to get up close to the action like never before.

In 2013, the most revered race in sailing history is all about what’s new: new high-tech boats, a new location in San Francisco, young sailors proving themselves while sailing alongside legends, and new ways to watch the race in-person and from afar.

“The 2013 America’s Cup is going to be very different from previous editions: faster boats, racing close to shore, with the very best sailors in the world challenged as never before,” says Stephen Barclay, CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority.

Wingsails Take Over 

Barreling down the racecourse, hugging the shore and nearly tipping (sometimes actually capsizing and spilling sailors into the sea)—the new breed of America’s Cup multihulls are unlike any boat that’s ever been used in the race before. Powered by wingsails supported by towering masts, these ultra-light catamarans are also a formidable sight. The wingsail is what it sounds like; it’s not a soft sail, but a solid wing vertically mounted like a fin.

“The new America’s Cup has a design rule that created the AC72,” Barclay says. “It’s fast and, with a 131-foot tall wingsail, it’s also extremely powerful. In training, some teams have reported the boats sailing upwind at 35 knots (40 mph) in 18 knots (20 mph) of wind. Those are very impressive numbers.”

And as a wing helps a bird or airplane to fly, these wingsails change the way the boats perform, making them fly across the water when going downwind. “I think the flying aspect is the most sensational,” says Dirk de Ridder, wingsail trimmer on Oracle Team USA. The Dutch sailor contributed to the design of the AC45, the boat all America’s Cup teams practiced in before moving up to the AC72. “It’s that downwind sailing on the boats that’s both challenging and the most fun.”

The America’s Cup boat has grown in leaps and bounds since the race’s inception. The first Cup was won by a gaff-rigged schooner, named America. America was 101 feet in length overall; it had a nearly 11-foot keel and weighed 170 tons. The new AC72s are, as the name suggests, 72 feet overall and weigh only 6.5 tons. Even comparing the AC72s to the boats of the more recent Cups, the difference is staggering. Wingsails are fairly new to the scene, showing up for the first time at the 33rd America’s Cup when the U.S. team, then called BMW Oracle, used it to blow away the competition.

The AC72 Shakes Up the Cup

Winning the Cup doesn’t just bring prestige—it also brings power. The winner earns control over the next event, determining where it will be raced and what it will be sailed in. The team that loses is considered the Challenger of Record, and must agree to the final rules. Easier said than done, which is why many America’s Cups have spent more time mired in courtroom battles than on-the-water showdowns.

These multimillion dollar high-tech boats built for the 34th America’s Cup will most likely be obsolete by the 35th, if not because of a redesign by the new winner, but for the simple fact that technology is constantly evolving. (The America’s Cup serves as the breeding ground for new sailing design and technology, which often trickles down to the recreational sailing market, but the verdict is still out on whether the wingsail will catch on in this realm.)

As the defender of the 34th America’s Cup, Oracle Team USA—backed by Larry Ellison, with iconic sailor Russell Coutts serving as CEO and helmsman—rolled out a rule that mandated that each team design and build its own AC72 for the Louis Vuitton Cup (the precursor to the America’s Cup) and America’s Cup. The new boat looks so high-tech that many sailing stalwarts have snubbed its introduction, some merely because it’s not a monohull. But this was Coutts’—a four-time America’s Cup winner and Olympic medalist—intention. He wanted to reinvigorate the sport and create a new wave of excitement. The fast-flying new boats are meant to attract a new generation of sailors and viewers. “The next America’s Cup will meet the expectations of the Facebook generation, not the Flintstone generation,” Coutts says.

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Practice Makes Perfect

Before the teams cast off in the new AC72s, they practiced in the smaller, yet still challenging AC45s. Competing in the AC45s in America’s Cup World Series races around the world—from Venice, Italy to Newport, Rhode Island—drummed up support and anticipation for the 2013 event. It also gave teams time to build their 72-footers, and it gave the sailors—many of whom have much more experience in monohulls than multihull racing, and few with experience on wingsail rigs—a chance to get comfortable on the new, challenging boats.

“These boats push the crew of 11 to the absolute limit,” Barclay says. “Physically, they are the most demanding boats ever raced in the America’s Cup. … The guys are working at nearly maximum output for the entire race. They’re shattered at the end of the day.”

It’s no surprise that some fit, young sailors are getting a chance to climb the ranks aboard these new boats, especially those that come from a multihull background. Australian Jimmy Spithill, skipper and helmsman for Oracle Team USA, won his first America’s Cup aboard the first wing-sailed boat in the 2010 Cup—at the age of 30, he was the youngest skipper to ever win the trophy. Spithill led one of Oracle Team USA’s two entries during the World Series events while the British sailor Ben Ainslie, the most decorated Olympic sailor in history, helmed the team’s second boat.

Talented young sailors are racing with Cup legends, such as Coutts on Oracle Team USA. Six-time America’s Cup veteran and American Paul Cayard is serving as tactician for the Challenger of Record, Swiss team Artemis Racing, with the younger Nathan Outteridge from Australia at the helm. Attracting Cup veterans, Olympians and fresh faces, the pedigree of sailors in the 34th America’s Cup is unmatched.

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Back in the U.S.

The illustrious Cup returns to U.S. shores for the first time since 1995. Though a little less than two decades may not be a staggering amount of time to be away, it’s notable considering the U.S. has claimed ownership of this perpetual trophy for more time in its 160-plus-year existence than any other. From its inception in 1851 to 1983, the Cup was sailed in Newport, Rhode Island, with the trophy residing at Newport’s famed New York Yacht Club. In 1988, 1992 and 1995, it went westward to San Diego. Now, after being raced in New Zealand and Europe for the first time recently, the Cup makes its homecoming.

When it came to choosing a location for the 34th America’s Cup, many suggestions were bandied about. Newport was proposed, of course, to celebrate the Cup’s homecoming. Or back to San Diego, perhaps. Even Miami, a spicy city that hosts the Olympic Classes Regatta and myriad yachting events annually, was a contender. But in the end, San Francisco won. Maybe not surprising considering Ellison has his corporation based outside of the city. But proximity wasn’t the only deciding factor for a man who can afford to fund a Cup team.

“[San Francisco] Bay was made for the America’s Cup,” Barclay says. “First, the wind is strong and reliable, meaning racing will be fast, furious and start on time. And the racecourse is closer to shore than ever before. Whether you’re on the water, standing on the shoreline or on one of the many hilly vantage points around San Francisco Bay, you’ll be able to share in the excitement of this America’s Cup.”

Attending and Tuning In

The ability for the new boats to get close to shore has completely changed how the race can be enjoyed. During the World Series, spectators watched the race from shore for the first time in race history. They will be able to do this in San Francisco, too, or from the water aboard yachts lining the edge of the racecourse. While the boats will be faster and more high-tech, and the racing more exciting, this up-close viewing breeds an intimacy that feels refreshingly old-school—ironic when considering the old boats never could have pulled off this feat.

This America’s Cup will be more exciting to watch, says de Ridder. “In San Francisco, the breeze is pretty much guaranteed. And, the boats are absolutely spectacular. Downwind, they’ll literally fly, and upwind they’ll be doing approximately 20 knots (23 mph) with lots of spray. It will be a spectacle.”

Attending the Cup in San Francisco can mean finding that prime viewing locale or purchasing bleacher tickets available through event organizers. To get closer to the action and enjoy a more luxurious experience, a superyacht can oblige. This year’s Cup has a superyacht program that includes berthing packages and special VIP events. Any yacht that berths at the event will gain access to racecourse-side mooring during the main event. The America’s Cup is one of the hottest upcoming event charters; Fraser Yachts and Ocean Independence, operational partners of the America’s Cup Superyacht Program, can help connect potential on-the-water spectators with a yacht. For those who have always dreamt of racing in the America’s Cup, the Superyacht Regatta, organized by Boat International Media, will allow for a special experience. Sailing yachts berthed during the America’s Cup can participate in a regatta on the actual America’s Cup racecourse during the Cup’s lay days.

The new high-energy racing of the AC72s means that watching from afar will be more exciting than ever before, too. The event will be broadcast across six continents with NBC showing the race in North America.

Cutting-edge technology isn’t just coming to the boats themselves, but to how the event will be viewed. Real-time tracking and graphics through the Liveline system will be embedded in the live broadcast; the boats carry a sophisticated tracking system allowing this to work. Now watching the America’s Cup could look a lot more like watching a football game; the yachts’ progress being tracked over the water can be shown on the screen the way yardage is displayed over the field.

“The Liveline graphics package for television viewers has proved revolutionary,” says Barclay. “The package developed by America’s Cup tech guru Stan Honey has already won an Emmy Award for outstanding technical innovation, and the broadcasts are recognized as game-changers for the sport.”

And for those who really want to dive into the data, files containing the digital record of each race are available to the public for download on the America’s Cup website.

The Final Showdown

Another benefit of the World Series was to separate the wheat from the chaff; these races helped weed out the teams that really could make it to the final stages of the America’s Cup. Those who mustered through, in terms of both financing and ability, will race in the Louis Vuitton Cup July 4 to Aug. 30. The Louis Vuitton Cup came about in 1970 when multiple yacht clubs were interested in challenging for the America’s Cup for the first time; the idea of only one challenger seems almost antiquated in today’s race that sees more than seven serious challengers. The Louis Vuitton Cup will determine who will match up with the defender, Oracle Team USA, for the final showdown. Challenger of Record Artemis is a contender, but teams from countries that have never before won the Cup—such as Korea and China—have brought serious game.

Team Oracle USA is unrelenting in its training program. “We have a lot of items to test, such as wings, foils and boat handling,” says de Ridder. “We also need to select the right crew, plus get everyone up to a really high level so we can interchange crew as needed. We’ll do as much in-house racing as we can to get as prepared as we can.”

The Louis Vuitton Cup will be an exciting “playoff,” and no matter who challenges Oracle Team USA in the 34th America’s Cup, this is sure to be a year not to miss. The boats might look very different, but what remains the same are the racers’ spirit, skill and determination to bring home the Cup. m

 

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