Ever since 1983 when the America’s Cup was last held on the historical waters off Newport Rhode Island, Cup fans have seen their once stodgy event evolve into a wildly political international PR drama, dragged through courtrooms into one bizarre unorthodox challenge after another. And while sailors lamented the shortcomings of each host, they yearned for a Cup with real waves and real wind—a daily event on San Francisco Bay.
Fremantle provided thrilling racing and an explosive Aussie following, but from a US perspective it was an upstart challenge half way around the world. San Diego was calm and listless and as a city never quite showed a spark. The city of Auckland raised the ante for a host, but again the racing was held mostly out of sight of shoreline spectators. Valencia bore the burden of being an illegitimate host for the Swiss. So when San Francisco won the chance to host, the whole sailing world wanted part of the action. It promised one of the world’s liveliest cities, host to decades of great sailing events, blustery winds, rimmed with pizzazz, and surrounded by a natural amphitheater that would provide incredible shoreline vantage points for all the world to watch.
This September the Cup will indeed be held on San Francisco Bay, between Oracle, the American defender, and one of three challengers: Artemis of Sweden; Luna Rossa of Italy; or Emirates Team New Zealand, the odds-on favorite.
For more than 100 years, the Cup was a match racing monohull event that brought together the world’s richest patrons, the most glamorous yachts, and some of the world’s best and best-connected sailors in this most elitist of athletic competitions. This year is different. Though this is the third Cup held in multihulls, it marks not a renegade challenge but a complete metamorphosis. It is now an extreme sport held in wildly high-tech and expensive 72-foot wing-driven monster catamarans, racing a tight course at 40+ knots, in a venue designed and staged for a TV audience.
The crews no longer wear khakis and leather boat shoes, or even the latest rain gear. Now they are adorned with helmets, Kevlar vests, protective padding, GPS, emergency knives, flotation, cameras, radios, computers, and the very latest technology from head to foot.
And this year, boat speed is king as the mantra is to “go fast, and do not crash”. After the start the two boats are often not in the same vicinity; they might cross near a mark, but at such blistering speeds, their vast separation (although covered in seconds) is not what spectators were hoping to see.
Some Cup aficionados feel shortchanged by the switch to hi-tech multihulls that are beyond the reach or even the imagination of the average sailor, since this event historically fired up interest in the sport.
Some nations had early hopes to compete in the Louis Vuitton Challenge series, which normally included 10-15 nations battling for the right to face the defender. After competing in a required costly preliminary two year worldwide challenge series in 45 footers, Spain, Australia, England, Korea, and France find themselves no part of this summer’s big events, now that the world has finally tuned in for the competition. Even the city of San Francisco, despite a waterfront that has been transformed by concert venues, grandstands, and superyacht docks is having its doubts.
But, come September, as two boats battle on the Bay over two weeks for the Cup, for all the glory of winning it and the power its hosting earns, most sailors will follow the action intently. These boats are fast and dangerous as they fly furiously around the Bay on hydrofoils, eight feet off the water with only razor sharp appendages slicing into the sea. Set in shallow waters with raging tidal currents against a backdrop of the Golden Gate and a legendary city front, this is a new extreme sport chapter in America’s Cup history. Better check it out, or be left behind.