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Wings & Water: Titans at the Gate

Bailey S. Barnard

Few rivalries in the world of sports match the face-to-face intensity of Russell Coutts versus Jimmy Spithill. Though little known outside of sailing circles, the feud between the two America’s Cup captains is deep-rooted and fierce, an underlying enmity that extends to each of their many encounters on the course.

Coutts, a 51-year-old New Zealander, is the world’s most-decorated America’s Cup sailor, having won yachting’s main event four times, from 1995 to 2010, for three teams and three countries. He is an Olympic gold medalist, a two-time World Sailor of the Year, and the closest thing the sport has to a celebrity athlete.

Spithill, an Aussie who was just 5 years old when Coutts won his gold medal in 1984, is the up-and-comer who is challenging the New Zealander’s reign at the top. “Coutts is the most successful guy in the game, and we’ve raced each other a lot,” says Spithill, who in 2010, at the age of 30, became the youngest skipper ever to win the America’s Cup. “For me, losing to him is the worst thing that could happen.”

Heightening the rivalry between these two champions is the fact that they sail for the same team: Coutts and Spithill both captain boats for Oracle Team USA, which is owned and funded by the tech giant’s CEO, Larry Ellison. The American billionaire is himself a skilled sailor; he was one of the 11 crew members aboard the Spithill-helmed boat—a 113-foot-long, 90- foot-wide sloop-rigged trimaran with a 223-foot-tall wing sail—that won the 33rd America’s Cup three years ago. With the victory, Oracle Team USA (then known as BMW Oracle Racing) earned the right to house the America’s Cup trophy at the organization’s home base, the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco.

According to the America’s Cup bylaws, as the current defender of the cup, Oracle Team USA must host the first official challenge made on the trophy. The team will finally do so this September, when the oldest active prize in international sports will be up for grabs in the 34th America’s Cup. Oracle Team USA will defend the trophy on its home water of the San Francisco Bay—perhaps the grandest stage the race has ever known—on its own terms, and in a spectacular fashion never before seen in the event’s 162-year history.

Long before his team became defender of the cup in 2010, Ellison had been working to bring the race to San Francisco for the first time. The tech mogul has invested significant time and resources over the years in an attempt to raise the event’s profile as a spectator sport, on a par with a NASCAR race or World Cup soccer match, and the City by the Bay offers the ideal venue for his plan. The position of the city’s waterfront provides a natural arena for spectators to view the races from the shore, and the bay’s notoriously rough waters, harsh winds, and quickly changing currents make maneuvering boats a challenge for sailors—and make the action more exciting for fans.

“A lot of people don’t realize that San Francisco has one of the best natural passages in the world,” says Coutts. “If we want the sport to be recognized, we’ve got to have it where people can see the action. The old format seems pretty dull compared to what we’re doing now.”

Indeed, the previous 33 America’s Cup contests unfolded far offshore, where wide-open courses gave sailors an abundance of navigable waters. The locations also limited the number of spectators able to witness the races to those viewing with binoculars from the shore and, in recent years, the small audience watching from home on TV.

For this year’s event, Ellison—who is reportedly investing in excess of $100 million—proposed the rules and format of the race, as well as the design of the competing boats. Along with the other masterminds behind Oracle Team USA (which include Coutts, the team’s CEO), Ellison has brought the racecourse much closer to shore. He has also mandated a new design for the yachts: roughly 45-foot-long carbon-fiber-hulled catamarans, called AC45s, with 71-foot-tall rigid wing sails for the preliminary races and similarly designed 72-foot-long catamarans, called AC72s, with 131-foot-tall sails for the later rounds. Compared with previous America’s Cup yacht designs, these two-hulled vessels are lighter, faster, and more agile—and more dangerous. During training this May, the British Olympic medalist Andrew Simpson was killed when the Swedish team, Artemis Racing, capsized one of its AC72s; early reports suggest that he became trapped underneath the vessel, although the investigation into his death was incomplete at press time.

“These boats are like Formula 1 cars,” Spithill says of the AC72s, which can exceed speeds of 40 knots. “There is a lot of crash and burn, and real risk versus reward. You can get seriously hurt or damage the boats, and that was never there in the past.”

In addition to introducing faster boats, Ellison expanded the number of races leading up to the America’s Cup finals. The circuit’s World Series contests, which ran from August 2011 to April of this year, involved several one-on-one match races and group fleet races in destinations from Cascais, Portugal, and Plymouth, England, to San Diego, Calif., and Newport, R.I. This summer, from July 4 through August 30, the Golden Gate Yacht Club will host the Louis Vuitton Cup, which marks the final buildup to the America’s Cup championship.

The Louis Vuitton Cup will be the sailors’ first opportunity to sail the larger AC72 boats competitively. (As defender of the cup, Oracle Team USA does not compete in the Louis Vuitton Cup, and Spithill has been selected as the skipper of the AC72 that will defend the trophy during the final America’s Cup races.) The Louis Vuitton Cup is the equivalent of playoffs in other sports, determining which team will challenge Oracle Team USA in the one-on-one, winner-take-all America’s Cup from September 7 through 21.

The America’s cCp is named for the schooner America, a vessel sponsored by the New York Yacht Club that in 1851—with Queen Victoria watching from the distant shore—defeated England’s Royal Yacht Squadron during the annual 53-nautical-mile race (then known as the 100 Pound Cup, for the trophy’s original value in British currency) around the Isle of Wight. The sterling-silver ewer has since been engraved with the names of every yacht that has competed for it, with matching bases added over the years to accommodate the additional boats. The trophy today stands just over 4 feet tall and weighs 33 pounds.

The regulations dictating which teams can challenge the defender of the cup are highly complicated and convoluted, and are often hashed out in the courtroom rather than on the water. The race’s regulations permit sailors to serve on any team and for any country. Because of the extensive cost of the boats and the sailors’ salaries, corporations and benefactors support each of the teams, which by rule must have a sponsoring yacht club. Each team is allowed to have as many as two boats competing to become the challenger of the cup, which for much of the last 30 years has been determined by the outcome of the Louis Vuitton Cup races.

In 2010, however, BMW Oracle Racing won the right to challenge Italian-born Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli’s Swiss team, Alinghi, through extensive litigation interpreting the deed of gift of the America’s Cup, the 126-year-old document governing who may make a challenge for the trophy. Following the court decision, Ellison’s team defeated Alinghi in a one-on-one series of races taking place over several days, thereby bringing the cup back to the United States for the first time since 1995. (Only four countries have ever held the America’s Cup: Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States.) The trophy currently resides at the Golden Gate Yacht Club on the shores of the San Francisco Bay, where Ellison’s work to transform the America’s Cup spectator experience is nearing completion.

This spring, construction began on a massive (and temporary) outdoor structure located between Piers 27 and 29 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront. Called the America’s Cup Pavilion, the 44,000-square-foot venue is set just off the finish line and will accommodate 9,000 people and a stage with two 250-square-foot video screens. A variety of seating and access options will be available for the Louis Vuitton Cup and America’s Cup races, ranging from single-day tickets and season passes to private-club access, corporate waterfront chalets, and even yacht charters for those interested in viewing the action from the water. (See “A Guide to the 34th America’s Cup,” page 131.)

Ellison, however, has his sights set beyond San Francisco. Last March, well after the start of the World Series circuit, the America’s Cup Event Authority, which is funded largely by Ellison, purchased blocks of airtime from NBC to broadcast races. Ellison aims to broaden the sport’s reach and appeal through the broadcasts, but he acknowledges at least one major hurdle: Regardless of vantage point, the America’s Cup races are confusing. Sailors are allowed to take more or less any route to each of the races’ checkpoints, and with a number of time penalties in play, it is often difficult to tell which boat is in the lead.

To assuage potential confusion for the television audience, Ellison recruited Stan Honey, an engineer, radar expert, and avid sailor, and the founder of Sportsvision. Honey’s company is responsible for several television-viewing technologies, from the NFL’s digital LiveLine first-down markers to Major League Baseball’s digital strike zone. For the America’s Cup races, Honey has developed digital name tags that hover over each boat and indicate its position in the race along with any applicable time penalties. Sportsvision’s LiveLine technology is also used to highlight the racecourse, which should help viewers distinguish—and enjoy—the action and drama on the water.

Last August, in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, Coutts and Spithill found themselves battling with nine other boats—representing seven countries—in a World Series fleet race. As the summer winds began to pick up, the two sailors were side by side on the approach to the two white Louis Vuitton–sponsored boats marking the starting line. Coutts was between Spithill and one of the start boats, and the younger captain emerged slightly in the lead as they initiated their moves past the vessel. Spithill then edged closer to the start boat and forced Coutts’ yacht into an embarrassing collision with the vessel that left him far behind the rest of the fleet.

Team Spithill went on to win that set of San Francisco World Series fleet races, while Team Coutts proved victorious during the match races, with the captain barely defeating his young teammate in a one-on-one bout. Following that close battle, Spithill met Coutts backstage before the awards ceremony, where the winners celebrated on stage with jeroboams of Moët & Chandon. Still in his wet suit and race jersey, Spithill beelined to his rival and shook the veteran sailor’s hand. With an almost taunting grin on his face, Spithill leaned in. What the young skipper whispered to Coutts, only the two sailors know.
America’s Cup, www.americascup.com

A GUIDE TO THE 34th AMERICA’S CUP
With faster boats and a more exciting format, the America’s Cup is coming to San Francisco for the first time in the event’s 162-year history. The action begins with the Louis Vuitton Cup from July 4 to August 30, followed by the 34th America’s Cup finals from September 7 to 21.

The center of the action for spectators will be the waterfront America’s Cup Pavilion (rendering shown above), which accommodates 9,000 people and two 250-square-foot video screens for live broadcasts. A season pass to the facility (starting at $1,000 per person) includes a reserved bleacher seat near the starting line or finish line for all of the races. (Tickets to individual races start at $15 per person.)

For more exclusive entrée to the events, the pavilion’s America’s Cup Club includes a private viewing deck, fine-dining options, and a premium bar. Prices for club access start at $600 per person for the Louis Vuitton Cup and $750 per person for the America’s Cup finals. Club members will also have the option to purchase an on-water experience for the races (starting at $950 per person), which entails viewing the races from a boat anchored in a prime location along the racecourse.

Group access to the America’s Cup is also available in private waterfront chalets located between the St. Francis Yacht Club and the Golden Gate Yacht Club, near the races’ starting line. Guests enjoy exclusive use of the 20-foot-by-70-foot chalets, each of which includes a private deck and seating for 40 people, as well as food and beverage catering services. The chalets are priced at $40,000 per day for the Louis Vuitton Cup finals and $75,000 per day for the America’s Cup finals.

For the ultimate America’s Cup viewing experience, private yachts will be available for charter through the broker and management firm Fraser Yachts (www.fraseryachts.com). The America’s Cup Park features 20 super­yacht berthing slips, for yachts as large as about 400 feet, and vessels are available from $10,000.

If your plans do not involve chartering a megayacht, San Francisco of course offers an array of fine hotels, some of which have devised special travel packages for the America’s Cup. The St. Regis San Francisco Hotel (www.stregis.com) is offering the America’s Cup Aficionado Package, which includes a two-night stay in one of the hotel’s Metropolitan suites along with daily passes to the Club 72 yacht club for viewing the races. Rates for the package start at $2,000 per night, with a two-night minimum stay.

From the Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square (www.fairmont.com), the America’s Cup Village and the starting-line viewing area are just a quick walk west along the water; the America’s Cup Pavilion and finish line are a short walk east. Hotel rooms, several of which offer views of the action, start at $899 per night during the races.

The Mandarin Oriental, San Francisco (www.mandarinoriental.com), which recently underwent an extensive renovation, is located in the heart of the bustling financial district, in one of the city’s tallest buildings. Affording stunning views of the bay, the hotel’s guest rooms start at $445 per night during the races.

About an hour south of San Francisco, the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay (www.ritzcarlton.com) is offering an America’s Cup package that starts at $1,135 per night and includes a room with a coastal view, breakfast for two, and daily round-trip transportation to the race events. —B.S.B.

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