Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Yacht races take sailing to the extreme


FOILING ACROSS THE BAY — The US boats train for the America's Cup last month in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in the San Francisco Bay. Photo by ACEA/PHOTO Gilles Martin-Raget

SAN FRANCISCO — “America,” a replica of the yacht that 162 years ago won the sailing trophy named after her, led the America’s Cup fleet onto San Francisco Bay, last Friday, for preliminary races leading to the 34th defense of the cup in September. The venerable America was a radical design in 1851. Its hull, “long, low-slung and black as night … instantly intimidating its competitors upon arrival in England,” wrote Sailing World. The 72-foot, foil-borne, wing-sailed, high-tech catamarans (called AC72s) being sailed in this year’s defense are bringing sailboat racing to the extreme.

The AC72s are able to sail 46 mph, a relatively slow speed on a roadway, but truly astounding on water, particularly so for a racing yacht. This high speed is possible through three design elements: a multi-hull boat, a wing sail (virtually an aircraft wing, upended) and the ability for the AC72s to “foil.” Foiling is the racing term for a hydrofoil. Thin, L-shaped foils on the AC72s that extend below the hulls lift the boat from the water as it gains speed, allowing the AC72s to accelerate quickly. When they’re riding their foils, the AC72s virtually fly both hulls above the water. Unlike traditional monohull sailboats that rock and roll over ocean swells, the AC72s cut through the waves, once airborne.

Foiling appears to be decidedly more dangerous than when a hull is in the water, though America’s Cup (AC34) sailors say it is not. Once the boats are foiling, they’re relatively safe from the greatest danger to a catamaran… that it bury one of its hulls into the water and capsize end over end in what’s termed a pitch pole.

The USA yacht, Oracle pitch poled last year, while attempting to bear away from the wind during a big ebb tide (flowing out) on San Francisco Bay. Unable to right herself, Oracle broke up and was swept under the Golden Gate and seven miles out to sea before being salvaged. Fortunately, all hands survived.

A similar pitch pole on the Swedish challenger, Artemis, in May had more tragic consequences. Beloved English Olympic sailor and tactician Andrew “Bart” Simpson got trapped beneath his overturned boat and died. Artemis, like Oracle, was not foiling at the time. She was turning away from the wind on both hulls, buried one, then flipped.

Accidents like these remind America’s Cup followers that the race is fundamentally one of technological advancements between nations on the water. Every four years, the technology used advances. With those advances, race officials modify race rules and instructions, accordingly. The extreme nature of the AC72s has made safety a high priority in this year’s defense. Following the Artemis accident, 37 rule changes were imposed, many related to crew safety.

For the first time in America’s Cup history (rare in sailboat racing), crewmembers wear helmets, body armor, heart monitors, wireless communications devices, climbing harnesses (to clip onto webbing in the event of a capsize), air cannisters (30 breaths), watches with touch-screen displays specific to their position on the boat, special polarized sunglasses that allow sailors to read the displays (some outfitted with heads-up displays) and knives to cut away lines should they become entangled under water, in addition to a personal floatation device and specially designed clothing to stay warm in San Francisco’s cold summer air and water.

Should you plan to watch AC34, do as the sailors will be doing and dress accordingly. Though San Francisco days can be sunny and warm, many are breezy and chilly. A warm jacket should always be nearby. America’s Cup is the world’s oldest sporting event, held continuously since 1851. It is also the largest sporting event – other than the Super Bowl – to come to Northern California in the near future. And, it is one of the most accessible of any major sporting event.

There is no cost to watch the racing.  Just find a good viewing location along the shoreline.  Though, seating is only within gated areas at the America’s Cup Park (Piers 27 and 29) and in viewing stands at the Marina Green (America’s Cup Village) near the host Golden Gate Yacht Club.  Entry to America’s  Cup Park is also free, but that only admits you to the team and store areas, not the areas where spectator viewing occurs.  Inside the viewing areas, huge TV monitors provide detailed coverage of the race with expert commentary.

AC34 utterly destroys the time-worn idiom that sailboat racing is as interesting as watching paint dry. This couldn’t be farther from the truth in the case of AC34. Even technologies used to show the race to spectators are extreme. Computer-generated animated graphics show each boat’s iridescent track across the bay. Spectators will have a clear idea which boat is leading and what might happen to change its fortunes, as all sorts of high tech data, combined with commentary by sailing experts will make the sport easy to understand.

To a sailor, being on a boat in a race is exhilarating.  The same experience will be provided to spectators through the use of multiple high definition cameras on the racing yachts combined with aerial footage. Even a spectator with no sailing experience will understand what’s happening and quickly share in the excitement of what’s happening on the water.

If you can’t get to San Francisco to see the races, the same images and commentary will be streamed live during racing on Highlights of last week’s opening ceremony and press conference and yesterday’s first Round Robin race are up. Visit for a schedule of planned races and tickets to gated viewing areas.

Occurring now, though September is the America’s Cup Challenger Series or Louis Vuitton Cup (LVC).  A schedule of LVC races is found at The LVC determines which of the three challenging boats, Sweden’s Artemis, Italy’s Luna Rossa or Emirate’s Team New Zealand, will face BMW/Oracle in September. Some of the LVC semi-finals and all of the LVC finals will be shown on NBC SportsNetwork (NBCSN).

Together, these changes to the 162-year-old America’s Cup have brought sailing to the extreme.


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