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SAILING

America's Cup stirs controversy as it ventures into new waters

Larry Ellison's Oracle racing team has tried to reinvent sailing for a younger generation. But it hasn't been a smooth ride.

August 10, 2013|By David Wharton
  • Oracle Team USA practices before the start of Louis Vuitton Cup semifinal race in San Francisco Bay on Friday.
Oracle Team USA practices before the start of Louis Vuitton Cup semifinal… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Clanging machinery echoes through the shorefront warehouse, mixing with an occasional acrid scent, making this cavernous space seem like a laboratory.

Workers in black jackets — many of them designers and boat builders — scurry about the Oracle Team USA headquarters on a weekday afternoon as Russell Coutts surveys the scene.

The way he sees it, this place could save the sport of sailing.

"Let's set the record straight," Coutts says. "The America's Cup was dying."

After a storied career at sea, where he ranked among the most successful skippers in Cup history, the New Zealander now serves as chief executive for the Oracle racing team. With a mandate from owner and tech billionaire Larry Ellison, he is guiding an effort to reinvent sailing for an X Games generation.

It works like this: As defending champ, Oracle got to decide the site for the next race and the type of boats. So the 2013 America's Cup shifted from open sea to the San Francisco Bay, where spectators can watch from shore.

Gone are the conventional monohulled yachts, replaced by sleek catamarans with rigid sails that look like a jet wing. These AC72s can reach unprecedented speeds, rising out of the water to skim along on hydrofoils.

"They are insane boats to sail," says Chris Draper, the helmsman on an Italian boat vying for the title. "I cannot explain it … an amazing amount of fun."

But not everyone is thrilled.

Traditionalists scoff at the technology, so expensive that only three challengers have entered the competition. Even worse, two training accidents — one of which killed a sailor — have raised concerns that Oracle's experiment might self-destruct before the September finals.

"They've talked about NASCAR on the water," says Roger Vaughan, who has written about the America's Cup since the 1960s. "I don't think that is working out."

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The America's Cup has spent much of its 162-year history at the fringes of mainstream sport, dismissed as a dalliance for the supremely rich.

Some might argue that, since a burst of notoriety in the late 1980s, when the U.S. uncharacteristically lost and scrambled to recover, the event has drifted toward oblivion. Ellison — who did not respond to an interview request — wanted to change all that after winning in 2010.

The Cup was not a complete stranger to progress. At one point, the boats were downsized from more than 100 feet long. More recently, multihulled crafts entered the scene.

"These things are fun," Vaughan said. "It was a natural evolution."

But the AC72s — at 72 feet long and 131 feet tall — represented a quantum leap.

Initially, nobody intended for the massive boats to "foil" — rising above the surface as if by magic — but the New Zealand team discovered this ability during testing and everyone followed suit.

"It's like a turbo boost," Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said. "You just sort of hold on and the whole thing takes off."

At speeds exceeding 50 miles an hour, the AC72s are blurry fast for sailing. Equally important to Cup organizers, they can race in light or strong winds, which cuts down on weather delays and makes the competition more television-friendly.

But after a series of preliminary regattas with smaller AC45s drew plenty of entrants, only three teams decided to spend the estimated $100 million for the big boats: Luna Rossa Challenge of Italy (sponsored by Prada), Artemis Racing of Sweden (sponsored by an oil magnate) and Emirates Team New Zealand (sponsored by Emirates airline).

This minimal field took a bite out of estimates that the event would generate $1.4 billion and 8,800 jobs for San Francisco, which led to much grumbling around the city.

"People wanted to like it," said Josh Jackson, a resident who has watched Cup races during his lunch hour. "But there's been a lot of disappointment."

The situation turned darker May 9 when the Artemis boat capsized attempting a downwind turn and respected British sailor Andrew Simpson died.

"The world changed for us," said Stephen Barclay, the chief executive of America's Cup Event Authority. "That wasn't in the script."

Organizers responded with 37 safety recommendations, asking racers to wear high-visibility helmets, body armor and a small oxygen tank. The new rules also required wider rudder wings, which triggered complaints from challengers who believed the modification favored Oracle.

It all added up to a dreary spring, followed by trouble with the round-robin competition among challengers vying for the right to face Oracle in the final.

Luna Rossa boycotted the July 4th opening day and, as Artemis scrambled to rebuild, some early races featured only one competitor in glorified practice runs. The San Francisco Chronicle called it "perhaps the worst nautical launch since the Titanic set off across the North Atlantic."

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