In the first hours of daylight, Pier 80 in San Francisco is a quiet place.
Sea lions emerge from underwater, peep up at the immense cranes on the dock, then slip back into the depths. The giant industrial-age machinery that moves gravel from one mountainous pile to another at adjacent Pier 94 is silent.
At 9 a.m. the teams for the Selection Series of the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup arrive, pulling up in black GMC Yukons after being chauffeured from their hotels downtown. The peace of the colorful Cannery Row-esque reverie is shattered by laughter, back-and-forth bickering -- “F*ck you, weirdo” echoes over the water -- and remixes of ’80s pop music.
There is a reason for this, of course. The RBYAC teams are all composed of young men between the ages of 19 and 24, and by God, if someone doesn’t excel at loudmouth taunting during their college years, the planet has completely shifted off its axis.
But volume also is a survival skill.
Two hours from now, the young sailors will be crashing through whitecaps on frigid San Francisco Bay at upwards of 35 knots -- 40 mph -- exposed to the elements as they race inches away from each other on state-of-the-art 45-foot catamarans. Making sure the directions issued by their bellowing voices can be heard over the snap of apartment-sized sails and the percussive thump of a 3,000-pound boat is a matter of safety -- and success.
The Red Bull Youth America’s Cup was devised by Hans-Peter Steinacher and Roman Hagara, Austrian sailors who won the gold medal in the Tornado class at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics. For years, the barrier to entry into the America’s Cup was insurmountably high. It required a network of top-level yacht-club connections -- a sphere generally not open to people who don’t have a III or IV after their surname -- or an Olympic medal to crack into the race.
With the inception of the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup, there is now a more egalitarian auditioning process for the big leagues that also provides access to top-of-the-line boats and professional-caliber coaching. In February, youth sailors from 12 countries competed in the Selection Series, which determined five teams to advance to the finals, to be held September 1-4 here in San Francisco.
The Selection Series was meant to mimic the intensity of participating in the full-scale America’s Cup, including arduous gym sessions and harrowing instructive sails on the AC45, the most elite class of catamaran in regular use. The teams were judged on their sailing ability, fitness, and professionalism.
“In the one week of the Selection Series, they’ll learn more than they can learn in three or four years of training, ” Steinacher says.
In the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup, the catamarans are donated by the professional America’s Cup teams; the moxie and teamwork of the youth sailors is all their own. “It’s an opportunity we never would have had,” says 19-year-old Matt Whitehead, the skipper for South Africa’s i’KaziKati team. “To come over here and learn how much it takes for these pro sailors to succeed, it’s just an awesome experience. No words can actually describe what this means to us.”
Daniel Bjørnholt Christensen, 18, is skipper of the Danish Youth Vikings. The week, he explains, has taken its toll. The team had chowed down on burritos right before their training session in a gym-slash-torture-chamber at the adjacent Oracle Team USA hangar. And it wasn’t just any burrito, but a “really big, fat American burrito” -- here Christensen gestures with his hands to emphasize the immense, Wal-Martian size of the meal -- and after speed-winching a 100-pound weight across the workshop floor, the burrito didn’t sit well with one of his teammates.
“We had a little accident,” he confesses. “We did the test and we were tired, but we were all right. But one guy started puking and then the other guys started puking.”
This, quite obviously, is not your father’s America’s Cup, with its stereotype of popped collars on pastel polo shirts in consort with an unfathomably arch British-American hybrid accent. For 25 years, the America’s Cup has been won by teams from one of three countries: the U.S., Switzerland, or New Zealand. The diversity that the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup brings to the sport is immediately apparent; besides South Africa and Denmark, countries participating include sailing-world outliers like Argentina and Portugal.
“It just shows there was a real need for this,” says Russell Coutts, CEO of Oracle Team USA and a four-time America’s Cup winner. “When you look at America’s Cup before, it was the pinnacle of the firmament of sailing. But there wasn’t a way to feed that firmament.”
The RBYAC shares a pier with the hangar where Oracle Team USA is building their AC72 for the 2013 America’s Cup. It’s the first time the professional class has raced this particular style of catamaran, and the new boat is a 72-foot behemoth, with a 10-story sail and a hull that looks like a menacing extraterrestrial claw. As the youth teams hold their morning briefings, the sailors keep on stealing glances over to the immense boat as it is gingerly lowered via a 200-foot crane into the bay.
“When I was young and I saw the America’s Cup, it was a dream to be like those guys,” says Jonas Schagen, 23, a floater for Switzerland’s Team Tilt. “Now it’s me. But it’s going to take a lot of work to get the next step. The AC45 is like a toy compared to that.”
The next time America’s Cup races are held -- the event occurs every two to three years -- these youth sailors could be selected for the big leagues. The Red Bull Youth America’s Cup gives the athletes a renewed focus to keep their eyes on the prize. “When I first saw the pictures of the Oracle 72 cat on Facebook, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is going on there?’ ” says Philipp Buhl, 23, skipper of the STG/NRV Youth Team from Germany. “And two days ago we had the chance to visit the base. They’re working 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. There is great professionalism there.”
Seven teams have already made it through to the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup finals in September by virtue of being affiliated with teams racing in the AC72 class; the Selection Series will determine the rest. Charlie Buckingham is skipper of Team USA45 Racing, mentored by Oracle Team USA. Over the course of two days in February, Buckingham, 23, went through fitness testing and received a dropkick introduction to the boat.
“They pretty much handed us the keys and they gave us little pointers here and there, but I think they really wanted to see who could figure it all out on their own,” he says.
The result? “It feels under control if you and the crew are doing the right things,” he laughs. “We kept the boat upright. We wanted to make sure we didn’t push it too far -- we didn’t want to show up for two days and break the boat and leave.”
It’s the first day of competition in the Selection Series, and the teams are working through their jitters by playing on the Formula One racing video-game consoles set up outside the shipping containers where they keep their gear. Not only is personal ambition at stake, but also a large measure of national pride.
“Australia hasn’t really been a presence in the America’s Cup for years now,” says skipper Jason Waterhouse, 21, of Objective Australia. “This is really just showing that we mean business for sure. The AC45 is the best boat with the best technology, and these are the best youth teams in the world. We’re going to do the best we can to put on a great show.”
The catamarans hit the water just before noon. A dual-diesel-engine boat that can tear through the water at 50 knots pulls up to the dock. It serves as a chase boat, hauling out buoys and supplies for the teams, as well as toting along a few members of the media for a white-knuckle ride. It’s a beast of a ship, and one veteran sailing photographer nods approvingly as he boards. “I want a lot of boat between me and these guys,” he mutters.
Despite the years of experience the sailors have on their college and national youth teams, the AC45 is a different animal -- the strength and agility required to sail it is jarring, even to the pros who regularly race the craft in the America’s Cup World Series -- and the youth teams’ experience on the boat is limited to these few days of the Selection Series. “We did a lot of work before,” says Hanno Sohm, 23, a helmsman for the Austrian team. “We studied videos and communicated with people who have sailed the boat already. But it’s different to know what you have to do, and then to do it.”
Out on the bay, the elements are downright elemental. If you don’t face the gale, your sunglasses will be whipped off your face by the onslaught of wind -- and the AC45s are flying on the straightaways and then going seriously awry as the teams attempt to navigate around the marker buoys. “The big thing is that everything happens so quickly,” says Skipper James French, 20, of team GBR Youth Challenge. “If you’re thinking about it, it’s too late.”
At the end of the Selection Series, five teams were given the go-ahead to the September finals by directors Steinacher and Hagara: New Zealand’s Full Metal Jacket Racing, Objective Australia, Germany’s STG/NRV Youth Team, Switzerland’s Team Tilt, and Portugal’s ROFF/Cascais Sailing Team -- who rebounded from a near-capsize on their first day of sailing. Making the final decision was tough, Hagara says, and limited by the number of AC45s available, not by the talent of the teams. “We could have had 20 teams, easily,” he says. “It’s a goal for next time.”
For those teams selected, it’s the culmination of ambitions that weren’t even imaginable just a year ago. “New Zealand has been involved in the America’s Cup since we’ve been born,” says Will Tiller, 23, skipper of the Full Metal Jacket Racing Team. “Getting here and getting to do everything -- it means all our dreams come true, really.”
Check out the May 2013 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands April 16) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app. Follow Red Bulletin on Twitter for more.