Aug 30 2013
What F1is to motorsport, America’s Cup is to sailing. The regatta that sets sail next weekend comes around once every four years
Going out on to the open water itself is best left to those who man the navy’s warships, sailors of the merchant marine and fishermen making a living from the briny. A handful of sports and leisure clubs scattered up and down the coast are an honourable exception, where people actually enter the water for competition or pleasure.
In the west, the picture is very different. Yachting (or sailing, as it is called in sporting parlance) is a popular pastime alongside leisure boating and deep sea fishing, and regattas are held on frequent occasions. And as Formula One is to motorsport, the sailing world has America’s Cup, the pinnacle of wind-powered boat racing, though telling this to a hard-boiled sailor will probably get you clobbered, so much has tradition been twiddled with.
Held every four years or so, the race (or series of races to be more precise) is the longest-running sporting event in the world, this year’s edition to be held from next Saturday marking 162 years of its existence. There are many great sailing races, the Volvo Ocean Race (or the Whitbread around the world as it was earlier known), the Sydney-Hobart race among others, but for sheer romance, the America’s Cup stands alone, even in its watered-down modern form.
The 34th edition will see holders, Oracle of the US, facing the challenge of Team New Zealand, who came through the Louis Vuitton qualifying series, beating Italy’s Luna Rossa in the final round. Luna Rossa reached the challenger series with a 4-0 whitewash result against Artemis, the only other entrant, after the Sweden-supported boat’s campaign was marred by the death of a key crew member, British Olympian Andrew Simpson. The tragedy underlined criticism of the event as in the rush to innovate and built yet faster boats, crew safety has more often than not been given the go-by.
The title will be decided in San Francisco, also the venue of the Louis Vuitton series, in which the Kiwis won the best-of-13 challenger final 7-1 against the Italian boat, which had been backed by fashion label Prada’s owner, Patrizio Bertelli. The final will be a best-of-17 series.
This is a game in which money talks — very loudly. The boats that will contest the America’s Cup are almost unrecognisable to the untrained eye — the ultra-sophisticated catamaran design and sail layout a far cry from the single-hull vessels that one normally associates with ships and the sea.
The Italian team were, in fact, late entrants to the Louis Vuitton series, ironically enough, buying a Team NZ-designed boat, which the latter then outdid by adding further design innovations that saw their catamaran cut through the water at an eye-popping 50 miles an hour and more. And despite claims that costs would be kept down — or at least as low as possible — estimated budgets for this year’s series range between 100 million and 150 million dollars per team.
Oracle, for its part, is supported by the computer giant whose name it bears and its billionaire owner, Larry Ellison. Formed in 2003, Oracle Corp partnered with BMW from 2004. The association was, however, wound up soon after the American team succeeded in beating the Swiss defending champion boat, Alinghi, in 2010, and this time, will race under its own flag.
A word about the vessel that will be used at the 2013 America’s Cup. It is a path-breaking, high-speed 72-foot multi-hulled craft designated the AC72, which carries rigid “wing” sails and hydrofoils to lift the hulls clear of the water. It is this tweak that has angered purists and delighted those who want to make the sport more thrilling to watch.
The downside is that the design is highly unstable, and the death of the British sailor in the qualifiers was caused by the boat flipping over and trapping him underneath one of the hulls. The tragedy underlined the very thin line between ultra-high performance and relatively untested technology that has come to rule in the competition.
Following intensive safety reviews, crews of both boats in the finals will now be equipped with body armour and underwater breathing equipment in the event of further accidents, that are quite likely even in the relatively sheltered confines of the San Francisco Bay area.
In a sense, though, the debate and controversy over boat design turns the clock back to 1851, when a radical-looking American vessel won the very first running of a sailing race. That win triggered off when remains the longest-running sports rivalry in the world.