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How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love (or at Least Accept) the America's Cup

Why San Franciscans should care about sailing's Super Bowl.

Will it be a blockbuster or a boondoggle—or both? Until the America’s Cup races begin on July 5—or, more critically, until the economic haul from the two-and-a-half-month competition is tabulated—nobody will know the answer for certain. What we can say with confidence is that the summer of 2013 will be a turning point, for better or worse, both for the America’s Cup and for the city that’s hosting it. As San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee goes about the thankless task of trying to remake the city’s long-neglected shoreline, his administration has thrown in its lot with a group of investors, led by Oracle honcho Larry Ellison, who are attempting an even more brazen stunt: Turning a poorly understood, irregularly convened, tycoon-infested sporting event into a singular (and, hopefully, popular) televised spectacle. This may turn out to be an inspired idea or a disaster of super-yacht proportions—but no matter what, it’ll be damn interesting to watch.

To understand what’s truly at stake for both the organizers and the city, it helps to know a little more about how we got here. In modern history, the race has resembled Brigadoon, the magical place that materializes once every eon and then disappears again. In an arrangement peculiar to the competition, the winner (aka the defender) chooses the rules of engagement and the time and place of the next Cup. Consequently, since 1983, America’s Cup races have popped up in five cities and four countries and have been held anywhere from three to five years apart. Because Ellison’s Oracle Team USA won the last competition (in 2010), Ellison alone got to select this year’s venue and, more controversially, the type of boat (the steroidal, untested AC72) that would be competing.

Even among professional sailors, this winners-choice system can rankle— as it clearly did in the lead-up to this year’s Cup, when only three teams stepped up to challenge Ellison. It’s easy to see why other teams (most Cups include 7 to 10 challengers) stayed away. It’s as if, after winning the World Series last year, the San Francisco Giants got to set the schedule and pick the playing equipment for the rest of Major League Baseball—and not only did they demand that all other teams upgrade to multimillion-dollar titanium bats, but they also got to enjoy a guaranteed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. What right minded rival would sign up for that?

Further muddying the waters is the inherent fan-unfriendliness of international sailing. For one, the names of the teams change with each Cup depending on their sponsors (imagine rooting for the “San Francisco Giants” in one World Series and the “Ghirardelli Chocolates” in the next). The races have also traditionally taken place far from shore, on a course with boundaries that are impossible to discern. Also confusing is the fact that while this year’s Cup involves four boats representing sovereign nations—the United States, New Zealand, Sweden, and Italy—many of the sailors hail from countries other than those for whom they’re competing. Oracle Team USA, for instance, is skippered by an Australian and manned by a motley crew of Aussies, Kiwis, Dutchmen, and a Brit. All of the above creates the perfect recipe for a big, steaming batch of “Who the hell cares?” from the nonsailing set.

And yet, it’s hard not to appreciate the vessels themselves. In a world of irony, ambiguity, clutter, and fear, these colossal insects represent nothing less than the cold, elegant essence of physics. Their purpose is poetically simple: to conquer the wind-lashed, current-torn bay—and to thrash each other. The AC72 catamarans that Ellison demanded are huge, two feet longer than the average BART car. Their H-shaped structure has two advantages: It allows for maximum speed by reducing contact with the water, and it’s strong enough to hold up two sails, one of them longer than the wing of a Boeing 747.

That mainsail—a rigid, solid piece of carbon fiber and Mylar—is so large that a crane is required to lift it upright. Because it isn’t fabric, the crew can’t drop it like a regular sail and stop the propulsion it creates. Once the mainsail and the jib are in place, the boat is completely at the mercy of the wind, reaching speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. “These boats are alive,” said Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill. “It’s like trying to park a car with the accelerator on, and it’s exhausting. It’s a turbo—it’s like a wild animal in a cage.

Spithill said this in late April, two and a half weeks before the wild beast reminded us all of what kind of damage it can do. On May 9, Swedish syndicate Artemis Racing’s boat, which has been rebuilt at least three times, capsized and killed English crewman Andrew “Bart” Simpson, who was trapped underwater for 10 minutes while his teammates struggled in vain to free him. The incident has led to massive recriminations for the Cup’s organizers, a call to revamp safety protocols, and citywide hand-wringing about the gladiatorial nature of it all. The main problem, many now realize, is that the 72s are simply too fast for their own good.

Even before the crash, Oracle Team USA CEO Russell Coutts was quite candid about his regret over having chosen to race 72s rather than the usual 45-foot-long boats. “I think one of the big assumptions that was wrong—and I was a big part of this assumption—is that I thought if we made the boats too small, it just wouldn’t be viewed as grand enough for the America’s Cup,” he said. As Coutts and Spithill both admitted prior to Simpson’s death, the preliminary Cup races in the 45-foot catamarans were just as exciting for the fans. If Oracle wins this year’s Cup, they said, neither would insist on such large boats again. Bigger and badder, it turns out, isn’t necessarily better.

Page two: Sportsmanship in shambles

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