Semi-final racing for the America’s Cup’s Louis Vuitton Challenger Series begins tomorrow on San Francisco Bay, with Italy’s Luna Rossa Challenge sailing head-to-head against Sweden’s Artemis Racing in a 34th America’s Cup that has begun to look fractured.
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Figurative cracks to the world’s oldest trophy in international sports have appeared leading up to this summer’s racing, including: two serious capsizes that severely damaged the American and Swedish teams’ first boats, the tragic training-day death of the Swedish boat’s beloved strategist Andrew Simpson, a protest to rules changes by the Italian boat, a preliminary round in which more than half the races were sailed unopposed because the Swedish team had not yet finished building its second boat (after destroying its first boat in the capsize) and because the Italian boat refused to sail during its protest, and that only three countries (originally forecast to number as many as 10) qualified to challenge Oracle Team USA for the America’s Cup.
Atop these missteps, mishaps and misfortunes, anyone not following the regatta closely would be confused by what’s going on. The elimination process used to select the challenger is a muddled affair. Jack Griffin, president of Cup Experience — a firm that provides insider descriptions and access to the event for VIP groups — likens July and August’s races to the preliminary bouts that lead up to a title fight for heavy weight champion of the world. Griffin explains that what’s been happening is that “The contenders duke it out, over a series of matches, in order to get a shot at the defender. The America’s Cup World Series last year and the Louis Vuitton preliminaries last month set the stage,” for the Challenger Series Semi-finals that begin tomorrow.
Despite the disappointments and delays, this America’s Cup (AC34) is proving to be the most approachable, visually thrilling and fascinating yacht race ever held within sight of land. Stephen Barclay, CEO of the America’s Cup Event Authority reports that “nearly 175,000 visitors at America’s Cup Park (on the Embarcadero at Piers 27/29) and over 25,000 at the America’s Cup Village (Marina Green)” came out to watch the racing in July, exceeding his expectations.
What spectators see are massive catamarans riding high over the water on hydrofoils at exhilarating speeds. This is possible through the combination of the foils and upright, articulated aircraft wings in place of mainsails that generate terrifying speed over the water. On July 18, Emirates Team New Zealand’s (ETNZ) boat, Aotearoa (the native Maori name for New Zealand), set a top speed record for the class, sailing at 44.15 knots (50.8 mph) in winds reaching 15.8 knots.
Faster speeds have been attained by boats that were designed specifically for point-to-point runs, but no sailboat built to race against another has ever sailed that fast. ETNZ wing trimmer Glenn Ashby described Aotearoa as “by far … the coolest, most fun boat I’ve ever sailed on.”
For the boats’ owners and spectators alike, it is a lip-biting drama in which hulls lift out of the water as the big boats fly only on the tips of their foils, rocking and rolling, threatening that they might — at any moment — trip over themselves in a horrifying capsize, and destroy their chances to survive and win. And, “If we had another six or eight months of development, we’d probably get another 3 to 4 knots quicker,” said Ashby, “The feeling sailing downwind (the fastest point of sail) is surreal, covering ground that quickly.”
As it is, ETNZ is considered to be “the class act of the Louis Vuitton Cup,” having won all its preliminary round races, guaranteeing it a position in the final against Luna Rosa Challenge or Artemis Racing. The winner of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series finals (beginning Aug. 17) goes on to race America’s Cup defender, Oracle Team USA starting Sept. 7.
“The America’s Cup Village at Marina Green is the place to be for the start of the races,” said Barclay.
AC34 announcer Andy Green concurs, saying, “It’s all about the start,” as the boat that maneuvers itself into favored position prior to the gun and leads across the line has a formidable advantage in match racing. Spectators can view the races at several ticketed grandstands and viewing locations at the Marina Green and Piers 27/29 where Green and fellow AC34 narrator, Tucker Thompson, describe what’s happening on huge video monitors.
Additional sanctioned viewing areas include the historical Victory Ship S.S. Jeremiah O’Brien, at Pier 39 and on more than a dozen charter boats, including a replica of the historical yacht America which first won the cup in 1851. Tickets are priced from $50 to $300. Free viewing is available from points along the shore, as well, but without the convenience of expert commentary.
For additional cost, social and corporate groups can retain Griffin to provide private and custom commentary. An American who didn’t start sailing until he was in his 40s, Griffin became an avid club racer in Switzerland where he got to know people from the Alinghi syndicate involved in the Swiss team’s past defense of America’s Cup. He served as Alinghi’s commentator for VIP guests and operated its fan club. “By doing that, I saw that if someone does a good job explaining what’s going on and what to look for, it engages people. Often, I have guests who don’t know a spinnaker from an anchor, to ocean racers. I take great pride in not dumbing it down and using correct terminology.”
His typical guests are, he said, “a little bit of everybody who, affected by the curiosity factor, have come to see and find out what’s going on, including company groups, employee reward programs, sales contests and social groups out for an entertaining experience.”
Griffin’s commentary is mobile, occurring on any of the charter boats, viewing areas or VIP lounges available to America’s Cup spectators. “We begin by explaining what it is, why people care about it, and that it has — for over 160 years — been all about tycoons, technologies, spies, saboteurs and sailing.”
America’s Cup and its challenger series semi-finals are about all these things, but mostly about elite athletes, the world’s best sailors on the world’s most advanced sailboats. They have only wind, water, a fast boat and their skill to prevail. It’s a story of human triumph, as compelling as any in sport. In the end, America’s Cup’s trials and tribulations never fracture it. They only burnish it.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.