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Sea Change

With deadly wipeouts, big brand sponsorship and billionaire patrons, America’s Cup is starting to resemble NASCAR

Author Jack Cavanaugh Illustration Ryan Inzana

fan_illoIf Harold Vanderbilt—champion yachtsman and great-grandson of the shipping and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt—were alive to see what’s become of the 162-year-old America’s Cup, which he defended three times in the 1930s, he’d likely get seasick on his cravat and deck shoes. The tournament—which happens once every three, four or five years, and will kick up wake in the San Francisco Bay next month—has come to resemble a soggier version of NASCAR.

With this year’s Cup, which runs from Sept. 7 to 21, organizers have gone all out to ramp up the thrill factor, and thus broaden its appeal. Damon Runyon, the Depression-era sportswriter who famously griped that watching the Cup was like watching grass grow, would have no such complaints now. The narrow-beamed monohulled yachts of old, which topped out at 23 mph, have been replaced with high-tech, low-drag hydrofoil catamarans with carbon fiber hulls and sails emblazoned with sponsor logos that soar to the heights of 13-story buildings. These enormous, multimillion-dollar vessels are capable of slicing through choppy waters at speeds approaching 50 mph. To make this year’s event a better fit for television, individual races shouldn’t last more than an hour (they used to last more than three), and instead of taking place on the open ocean (as in Cups past, when live spectators had to charter a boat to watch the action), this year’s Cup is taking place in the idyllic environs of San Francisco Bay—close enough to shore for spectators to hear crewmembers’ voices—with the TV-ready backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the distance. And while Vanderbilt was no slouch when it came to personal wealth, in the modern era of the Cup, having a billionaire patron is essentially a prerequisite to entry.

“Billionaires’ egos get to set the criteria nowadays,” says Grant Dalton, the managing director of the Emirates, the New Zealand entry, which has about a half-dozen sponsors and still needed financial help from the government to make it into this year’s event. (Skippers regularly gripe of costs reaching $100 million.) “It is just ridiculously expensive and out of control.”

Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle Team USA, a sailor himself and one of the world’s richest men (with an estimated worth of $43 billion), is a prime offender. The 68-year-old co-founder of software giant Oracle led the U.S. to victory (with his bankroll, at least) in the last America’s Cup, in 2010. According to competition protocol, this grants him the right to dictate certain terms for this year’s race, which he did by demanding that every yacht be of the same design—the high-speed, multihull AC72. This has further propelled the race into a big-money, highly professionalized event.

Dennis Conner, the legendary American skipper, is one of many Cup veterans unhappy with what’s become of the race.

“I always had amateurs in my boats, and we raced for the love of the competition and for our country, but that’s not the case anymore,” says Conner, whose America’s Cup career spanned four decades (1974-2003). “We never paid anyone until 1987, when we gave members of the crew $300 a month while we were training in Hawaii. Now they make millions.”

Today, in what some have dubbed “The Mercenary Cup,” the U.S. defender has eight Kiwis on crew and just two Americans.

Of more concern to purists is the element of danger that comes with these new high-speed catamarans, which resemble the 12-meter monohull wooden yachts Conner skippered about as much as a Jet Ski resembles a kayak, but race organizers seem to encourage the added risk. Many people connected to the Cup believe that the prospect of spectacular wipeouts could ultimately elevate the race to the status of a truly popular sport—which could reasonably be termed the NASCAR Effect.

“There is a risk of boats like this getting knocked over,” says Peter Hogg, former race chairman of the Bay Area Multihull Association. “And that could add to the interest.” And as Dean Barker, the skipper of Emirates, puts it: “This is the Formula 1 of sailing … we’re definitely pushing the limits.”

Pushing the limits indeed. These sleek, tall, super-fast catamarans have shown a tendency to capsize in San Francisco Bay, as Oracle did during a training session last October, when it cartwheeled into the bay and was swept four miles past the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, what injuries occurred were minor. Then, on May 9, the Swedish entry, Artemis, was turning downwind on the Bay when it flipped over, resulting in the death of a British crewmember who was pinned beneath the yacht for roughly 10 minutes, despite the presence of support boats and divers and the fact that he was equipped with a crash helmet and oxygen canister, not to mention the efforts of divers from accompanying rescue boats.

Those accidents prompted Patrizio Bertelli, the billionaire owner of both Prada and the Italian team, Luna Rossa, to consider dropping out unless stricter safety rules were put into place.

“These are dangerous boats,” says Max Sirena, Luna Rossa’s skipper. “And after Oracle capsized I said it would not be the only one. Now it has happened again.”

Apparently Artemis also had its doubts about continuing with its backup boat.

“We will only race if our sailing team believes they are safe racing AC72s,” says Paul Cayard, a veteran American sailor from San Francisco who is the chief executive officer and a tactician for Artemis, which is sponsored by the Royal Swedish Yacht Club and, like Oracle and Luna Rossa, bankrolled by a billionaire, Swedish oilman Torbjörn Törnqvist.

Two weeks after the Artemis crash, Cup organizers did institute a new set of stringent regulations, which included an increase in “body armor” worn by crewmembers, higher visibility helmets, hands-free underwater breathing apparatuses and a minimum of two rescue boats for each yacht, replete with rescue divers and swimmers. However, while announcing these changes, Iain Murray, the America’s Cup regatta director, delivered a caveat, the purpose of which seemed to be safeguarding the Cup against any future tragedy: “No recommendations can ever eliminate risk or injury or death in what is an inherently risky activity.”

But for the race’s most vocal critics, further casualties are more than just a risk. As the San Francisco sportswriter and Cup observer C.W. Nevius wrote after the Artemis crash, “In attempting to build what they trumpet as ‘the world’s fastest boats,’ they have created something so supercharged and scary that these accidents aren’t just possible, they’re likely.”

Jack Cavanaugh, a sportswriter for the New York Times, covered the America’s Cup when the greatest risk during a race was the possibility of a crewmember falling overboard and getting wet. 

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