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America's Cup: Ready for Takeoff

Americas Cup


The wind in San Francisco Bay barrels through the Golden Gate like a gang of brawling longshoremen spilling through the doors of a bar. It whips the placid waters of the morning bay into frosted whitecaps by early afternoon, buffets the regal hills of Angel Island, and whistles through the ghostly windows of Alcatraz, blowing the baseball caps off the heads of Midwestern tourists.

On the water, boats heel and the edges of their canvas sails flap sharply in the 23 mph—almost 20-knot—gusts. But on the 72-foot catamaran with a 13-story wing for a sail speeding past them, there is little sound.

The boat the America’s Cup committee hopes will provide the sport of sailing a shot in the arm begins heeling as the first fingers of wind hit the wing. The 11 members of the crew tuck themselves into an area dug out of one of the two hulls. Grouped around four grinding handles attached to high-tech winches, they hold perfectly still.

It’s a game of inches as skipper Jimmy Spithill looks up at the sail and wing and then out in the direction he plans to head. The grinders sit still, then start moving in synchronized motions for a few revolutions, trimming the sail and wing in and out. The only sound is the mechanical crank of the wing as the boat’s hulls begin to rise out of the water. First the windward hull, then the leeward, as it rises up on a 550-pound slice of carbon-fiber daggerboard, a maneuver called foiling, which enables the boats to hit speeds of more than 45 mph/39 knots. Other boats pound through conditions like this, but the AC72 cuts through everything. It’s remarkably stable as the speed ticks up and up.

Through radio headsets Spithill’s mouth moves slightly and the crew spring into action. A tight choreography begins as they bound across the entire width of the boat, skidding down on the netting and bracing themselves against the other hull as water whips through the netting. The boat begins a slow tack and more bound across, including Spithill, who joins them on the other side. He steadies the wheel and heads upwind toward Fort Mason. Behind him, three chase boats bearing the Oracle logo swerve in and out of the AC72’s wake at top speed, like a motorcade straining to keep up.

The transplanted Australian is the skipper of Oracle Team USA, current holders of the America’s Cup. He’s a red-headed 34-year-old and became the youngest ever skipper to win the trophy when he steered Larry Ellison’s trimaran to victory in the 2010 America’s Cup. In September he and a top-flight international crew of 11 will take on the winner of a three-team selection series between boats from Sweden, New Zealand, and Italy in the 34th edition of the world’s oldest active competition.

“I don’t think anyone, even pro sailors a few years ago, could ever predict or think this is where we would end up today,” says Spithill. “From where we’ve come from to where we are is a vertical quantum leap. It’s not a slow progression. We’ve just gone ‘bang!’ It’s like we’ve broken a brick wall down.”

The AC72’s deadly potential has already been realized, after Swedish boat Artemis broke apart during a downwind leg in early May. Olympic medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson, of England, died after being trapped in the water under the wing and a solid section of the boat for more than five minutes. The crash led to proposed changes in America’s Cup race rules, including a maximum allowable windspeed of 23 knots/26 mph (from 33 knots/38 mph) for racing. Crew members also have Kevlar life vests with small oxygen canisters tucked on the outside, giving them one minute of air once they hit the water.

Spithill and his crew were fortunate enough to survive their own brush with disaster. Last October, on just the eighth day training on the boats, Spithill’s 72 nosedived in rough conditions as he navigated it through its most dangerous maneuver, the sharp turn from upwind to downwind, sending the 11-man crew into the cold waters of the bay before breaking apart and taking seven hours to recover.

But the tragedies are set against the potential that these boats, unmatched in their demands on sailors and their design innovation, have what it takes to generate the sort of buzz and TV audiences the America’s Cup, and the sport of sailing, desperately need to justify the hundreds of millions in investment.

To no one is that more apparent than Spithill, who swears he remembers the jubilation that greeted Australia II’s victory in 1983, the first time a non-American boat had won the competition since the first race in 1851. He was 3 then. Seven years later he won his first race on a wooden dinghy that he, his sister, and his dad rescued from the junk pile.

He’s now behind the wheel of a boat that is among the most advanced in the world. His crew hail from eight different countries. As the race for sporting’s oldest trophy begins, here’s Spithill on the risk, responsibility, and rewards of sailing in the new-look America’s Cup.

It was intimidating the first time I stepped on. We spent countless hours going through the design with the engineers, the predictions, the CAD drawings. But you get on that, it’s like you’re getting off the pony and getting on the thoroughbred. As soon as that boat hits the water and the wing is in it, it is alive and it wants to go. It can fly a hull [heel] in as little as 5 knots of wind. The day is really demanding because it takes so much energy and concentration. You make one little slipup and this boat will bite you.

You hear the foils start to hum when you go over 40 knots/46 mph, and the wind noise is like being in a hurricane. Guys are working so hard and you’re on the edge, and when you get to the end of it, you look around and just, yeah ... if you could bottle that up, you’d do well.”

You never ever underestimate the boat. You give it a lot of respect and don’t ever relax. You’re 100 percent focused. Other boats, a lot of the time, it’s, “Hey guys, we’re gonna take a break and sit down and relax a bit.” It just doesn’t happen. That’s when an accident can happen. It’s not like you take the wing down and have lunch.

A lot of the time you don’t have the time to say, “Hey, here’s what’s coming up.” Or, “Get ready for this.” You need to make the decision in a calm way while you’re red-lining the boat. And the guys on board have to make decisions completely exhausted. It’s split-second, and you need incredibly smart guys. You can have the fittest guy in the world on the boat, but if he doesn’t have a strategic mind or is not a good enough sailor to anticipate what’s coming up, he’s not going to make it. You could have the greatest tactician, and if he’s not a great athlete he’ll stick out like a sore thumb.

And we now get real credibility. We’ve had on some soccer players or rugby players, and race car drivers, and they’re just like, “F*ck me, I had no idea ...”

When you get a 72-foot carbon-fiber multihull with a 131-foot wing, and you don’t think there’s going to be some risk associated with it, there is something wrong with you.

We always knew [the crash] was going to be in the cards but never ever wanted to do it. At the end of the day, the sailors are on the boat because they want to be on there. They understand that it’s not risk-free. Nothing is in life. But they do it because they’re people who like to go out of their comfort zone, like to be pushed and ultimately learn something about themselves.

The most dangerous maneuver is the point where you bear away [and turn the boat from going upwind to a downwind direction with the wing out]. If you didn’t do anything the boat just wants to nosedive. It requires very good coordination—and if you get it right, and if it’s done well, you’re rewarded with an amazing sort of acceleration [up to 46 mph]. It’s an amazing feeling.

There is a lot of risk. You make a wrong decision in this boat and it could be catastrophic. The time to make the decision is a lot of the times split-second. You are trying to be a step or two ahead, always.

No question there is a greater sense of responsibility than in the past. That’s rare if you look at team sports. You look at MotoGP and F1, if the driver makes a mistake he’s going to hurt himself. There’s not that many sports where you put everyone in danger. I actually don’t know if there is a sport like that. It demands a lot of your attention, for sure.

If you’re a sailor and you’ve sailed in San Francisco, you turn up ready to roll. You’re going to have the confidence that you have been pushed hard, dealing with the fog, the ferries, Alcatraz, the currents.

The bay’s personality changes every single day. It’s challenging. Then you throw this boat in, and the course. When you come in [to the dock], it’s like you’ve accomplished something, you’ve pushed hard. It’s asked you for a lot, but what an awesome, rewarding experience.

Finally it’s up there with the other kinds of sport. It bothered me. Don’t get me wrong, I love mono-hulls and the fact that our sport is so diverse. This is being compared to the F1 on the water, and that was true from engineering and construction, but they didn’t take that level of athlete to pull it off. Now they do.

Honestly, when I go home at night I can’t wait to get up the next day and come in here. It is the coolest thing in the world. It’s a big sacrifice on time and your family, but I cannot wait to get in.

What’s crazy is what’s going to happen in another 5 to 10 years. I used to do a bit of motocross, and you see [Travis] Pastrana doing the first backflips, and then the double backflip ... so where’s it going?

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