The San Francisco Bay was typically frosty on a blustery weekday last October. A wind of up to 30 mph had whipped the 50-degree water into whitecaps, across which crisscrossed a fighter-jet-looking sailboat helmed by the America’s Cup champ and wunderkind Australian skipper Jimmy Spithill.
Measuring 72 feet long with a carbon-fiber “wing sail” 131 feet high, the boat has a racecar’s unbridled speed and crash potential. In the gilded history of the America’s Cup series in which it will be raced next summer, there has never been anything quite like it.
“The performance of these boats compared to five years ago is staggering,” says Dirk Kramers, one of Oracle Team USA’s lead designers. “Five years ago you had keel boats going upwind in 9 knots (10 mph). You’re now going upwind in 20 knots (23 mph). It’s like running the 100-meter dash in the Olympics in 10 seconds and four years later running it in five seconds. It doesn’t happen very often in sports.”
Welcome to the new-look America’s Cup, a broadcast- and crowd-friendly effort by sport’s oldest trophy series to bust out of the rarefied gin-soaked halls of yacht clubbery and appeal to a broader base. And it starts with the AC72.
“It’s a little bit like going to the moon,” says Spithill. “You don’t really know what you’re going to get on the way.”
Exhibit A: That fateful day in October, when a gust of wind hit the powerful wing sail hard on a turn and the front tips of the hulls dug into the water, beginning a slow capsize the sailors call “pitch-poling.” The helmets and armored Kevlar vests the 11 crew members were wearing kept them from serious harm. But the damage to the $8 million boat was significant, with the wing sail collapsing in several pieces as the tide pushed the boat out through the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We don’t want to do it again, but this is in the cards,” says Spithill. “It’s kind of like going to a car race and saying there’s not going to be a car crash. Because there’s a chance of that. That’s why these boats are so extreme.”
Since 1851, the America’s Cup has been the ultimate test for the world’s best sailors, requiring a combination of skill, design ingenuity, and deep pockets to challenge for the trophy. When New York Yacht Club’s America challenged the pinnacle of yachting prowess, the British Royal Yacht Squadron, the boat was the first to sport a narrow bow, or front, and a wide stern in the back. But it also had six showers and a galley capable of producing banquets.
The century-plus since has brought a constant drive for innovation in the design of the yachts. Australia II, the first yacht to wrest away the America’s Cup from the U.S. after 132 years in 1983, used lightweight carbon fiber, and a winged keel that improved maneuverability to great success.
In 2010, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison invested millions in developing the most advanced boat in America’s Cup history. Not two- but three-hulled, the USA 17 featured engine-powered sail trimmers, was wired to collect data as it sailed, and featured a preposterous 20-story sail made not of cloth but of a construction of carbon-fiber ribbing and a Saran-wrap-like material used on ultra-light airplane gliders. The wing sail was 80 percent larger than that of a Boeing 747’s wing and, helmed by the young Spithill, it blew competitor, the Swiss boat Alinghi, away.
“This stuff is scary. There’s plenty of things to keep me up at night, believe me,” says Scott Ferguson, a wing-sail specialist who worked on the USA 17 boat. “Sometimes it’s the stupidest, smallest thing that can go wrong. I go on the boats for the first sails, and we’re wearing helmets and I think, ‘Make sure you have your life insurance policy set.’ ”
In 2011, Ferguson and other designers from the top America’s Cup teams got together in New Zealand and came up with a design for a new boat: A 45-foot catamaran of carbon-fiber hulls, smaller versions of USA 17’s wing sails, and room for a crew of five. Small enough to be packed into a shipping container, the 45s would serve two purposes: as display models for a form of America’s Cup racing where sailors need to prove their mettle on boats of similar design, and as a starter kit for teams planning the 72-foot boat.
Guiding their efforts is a 45-page PDF document that sets ground rules on materials and dimensions, a designer’s bible if you will. The margin of victory can be decided in the wiggle room designers find within that America’s Cup-issued document. The number of elements on the wing sail, for example, or the shape of the daggerboard that slides in and out of each hull, and the layout of the trampoline across which the crew moves when switching from side to side -- all can make the difference between a first- and last-place finish.
“These boats, you still have design and engineering pushing the envelope. But on the sailing point of view, these are Formula 1,” says Spithill. “The harder you push them, the faster they go. But you cross the line and there’s some big consequences.”
Why This America’s Cup Needs to Be Different
Arguably the most successful competitive sailor in the history of the sport, Oracle Team USA’s Russell Coutts is working on a new legacy: bringing the world’s oldest trophy into the 21st century. The new-look America’s Cup features lightning-fast boats of one design racing on quick courses in the San Francisco Bay, one of the most windy and intimate arenas for the sport in the world.
What should people new to the sport expect?
First of all they should forget what they’ve seen in the past. The races are much shorter. The America’s Cup final [in September 2013] is going to be two races on the one day with a short race in between. The races used to be miles out to sea, and used to take forever to complete. They were in slow boats. It was technical, and to be inside the boats it was great. But it used to be like watching paint dry.
Why was it so important to change?
Most if not all the sports these days, particularly in this economy, are challenged to get our costs lower and get the competitive platform better, by increasing the television ratings and increasing and broadening the audience. We just can’t have a sport that’s only there for the people who play that particular sport. It’s just not going to be commercially sustainable. We needed to broaden our audience, needed to make it more exciting and understandable.
"Have you walked into a yacht club lately? They’re boring."
Who do you want to reach?
My kids didn’t used to watch it. We were watching one of the races recently and my 11-year-old said, “I don’t know why I didn’t think this was interesting before. This is great.” Those were his exact words. If you don’t want a sport to die, you’ve got to engage with young people. Have you walked into a yacht club lately? They’re boring. We need to ramp that up. We need to get young people involved. It’s a place that’s full of 50- and 60-year-olds. I’m one of them. I’m criticizing my generation for not recognizing that and addressing it. We’ve got to adapt; we can’t be stuck in the past.
How are the one-design boats helping you move in that direction?
I brought some people in [to the warehouse] the other day, and they’re looking at it and thinking, “This is more like an aircraft.” And it is when you look at the aerodynamics. You don’t even think about that. You think it’s a boat with a white triangle on a blue background with a bunch of guys sitting around and having a beer. You know that’s the image that people have got. And you look at this thing and it’s just, “F**k, that’s a race boat, that’s a machine.” When you launch that, it’s almost a step into the unknown.
The format for racing is split between match racing -- i.e. one-on-one -- and fleet racing. Which do you prefer?
Look, I think the fleet racing is way better than the match racing. The America’s Cup started as a fleet race… and I think the America’s Cup would be better as a fleet race. That would be hugely controversial now.
You’re taking amateurs on the boats with you, as guests. Why?
Because we can. One of the guys said to me, “I thought I was going to come onboard and get handed a glass of champagne and sit in a comfy chair.” And you’re on there, and it’s edgy and quite violent. [Olympic sprinter] Michael Johnson fell off. He thought he could stand up walking across the boat. He obviously couldn’t. That’s a real experience, and that’s something unique for this sport.
Check out the January 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands December 11) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.