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Skimming the water with Youth America’s Cup, the future of fast sailing

Neal Pollack
August 30, 2013

In the name of all things that go fast, Neal Pollack went to San Francisco to explore the world of America's Cup yacht racing. - Ed.

Oracle Team USA, the defending America’s Cup champion, is currently preparing for world domination in its secret lair, a vast concrete pier structure just south of San Francisco’s Ferry Building, along the Embarcadero. From the outside, the building looks like a rotting wharf, but on the inside, it resembles the headquarters of a megalomaniac James Bond villain, a look Oracle CEO Larry Ellison occasionally embraces.

The two Oracle boats, 72-foot two-hulled jet-black catamaran monstrosities, are constantly being adjusted and resculpted by dozens of technicians, as Ride Of The Valkyries and the Carmina Burana play in the background. On their beams, they sit like Klingon Warbirds, and these boats — which Ellison chose, by right, after he seized control of the America’s Cup by whipping a Swiss team in the waters off of Valencia, Spain, in 2007 — can actually fly, at speeds up to 40 knots. Both hulls foil out of the water, at the same time. The America’s Cup, long considered the dominion of billionaire yacht captains, has entered the age of extreme sports.

The Oracle sailors put themselves through a brutal workout every day inside the hangar, grinding on heavy machines that require the same muscles as that winch-turning does, and jumping on a special trampoline designed to simulate moving on catamaran netting. Dennis Conner in his blue yachting hat is as distant to them as Captain Ahab. These are supreme athletes, well-funded by a mad billionaire.

But they came up hard through the ranks, getting on the water because of their love for boats, not because they were born on third base. Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to speak to spoke to Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill, the LeBron James of sailing. He had this to say:

“By changing the kinds of boats, sailing has gone from being an old man’s game to a young man’s game. It used to be more of an elitist yacht club sport. It would happen miles away from shore and it wasn’t athletic. We are a new type of sailor. These guys are athletes. It’s relentless, like pro football and rugby. You can’t have any weakness. You can be the greatest tactician in the world, but if you’re not in shape, you’re done for.”

You can also see this new attitude at work with the Youth America’s Cup, which, like every other extreme sport in the world, has been permanently branded with the Red Bull logo. While the Oracle team enjoys Olympian privileges, the youth team operates out of a 40-foot shipping container on a faraway pier, which holds their gear, their sails, their uniforms, and multiple coolers full of deli meats and “paleo bars” on ice. These are college kids, or kids just out of college. The maximum age is 24. They represent the new age of sailing, in its rawest form. Their summer, when they weren’t on the water, involved begging for the corporate dollars needed to keep the operation afloat. “It was a pain in the ass,” one of them told me.

Unlike the main America’s Cup, which will feature a bitterly-fought final between Oracle and some tough boats from New Zealand, the Youth Cup will have 10 boats, from multiple countries, on the water at a time. These are 45-foot beasts, nimble compared to Ellison’s Warbirds, that, until April (when Oracle won the world championship and then retired them), represented the very state-of-the-art in racing. They’re also a source of massive controversy.

This week, Oracle entered a hearing before an international jury, facing charges that they’d illegally modified the 45-footers for sailing in warmup regattas last year and this year. If they’re found guilty, they may have to forfeit the entire cup. But for the youth racing series, the first of its kind, all twenty 45-foot boats have all been rigidly tuned so they’re exactly the same. Winning is up to the sailors, and has nothing to do how much carbon has been injected into aluminum masts.

On a glorious Friday morning earlier this month, I got to ride rumble seat, wearing approximately six layers of splash gear, for a half-hour with America’s Youth Racing Force (known as “The Force”) as we roared across San Francisco Bay, salt water spraying my face all the time. Compared with the young, handsome, and super-fit sailors on the boat, I was a lump of bald, middle-aged dough, but it didn’t matter. They could handle the ballast. I got onto the back of the boat, and held on tight, grinning all the time.

The 45-footers don’t foil with both hulls, but they can lift off individually, gliding on the water as smoothly as an ice skater. The Force was with me. They winched and tacked and jibbed and moved in perfect concert, the next generation of master sailors working beautifully right in front of me. It felt like sailing into the future.

Afterward, I talked with one of them. “There’s no guarantee that we’re going to be real America’s Cup sailors,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition, a lot of great sailors on the other teams. But it’s amazing to be given the opportunity to try.”

The Youth America’s Cup starts Sunday in San Francisco Bay. Unlike the main America’s Cup, this one doesn’t exist under the cloud of scandal. It’s pure sailing joy, ten boats abreast, on some of the most challenging waters in the world. The Oracle sailors wish they were having this much fun.