CASCAIS, Portugal (AP) — The latest generation of America's Cup yachts is ready to set sail in a competition promising speed, stealth and uncertainty.
The first of three World Series events in 2011 begins Saturday off the Portuguese coast in Cascais. A new class of catamarans will streak though the Atlantic at speeds of up to 30 mph.
The World Series is essentially a training exercise for the Louis Vuitton Cup, where boats will try to become the designated challenger to defending champion Oracle Racing in the America's Cup, the oldest competition in international sports. Both cups will be raced in 2013 from July to September in San Francisco.
At Cascais, seven challengers from six nations are looking to give Oracle cause for concern. The nine-day event marks the first stage on the way to San Francisco, where the American syndicate will defend the Auld Mug trophy.
The AC45 wing-sailed class boats are 44 feet long, 71 feet high and sailed by a team of five. They are a prelude to the massive 72-foot long multihulls that will be used come San Francisco.
"From a racing standpoint it's going to be brutal at times. But that's part of the growing pains — it doesn't come without hiccups," Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said Friday. "These are so high-tech that when they are pushed to the limits that's where you can see mistakes."
The "fast cats," as America's Cup organizers label them, certainly present a big jump for the competition, with Energy Team skipper Loick Peyron coining "turbo engine" feel to describe the new series. While America's Cup sailing has been called Formula One on water before, the changes involve more than speed.
"It's quite physical, the boats are unbelievably high performing — it's just a new lease on life," Artemis skipper Terry Hutchinson said. "What we're getting ready to embark on here is something we've never seen before."
Oracle Racing is the overwhelming favorite. It enters the series having made the most of technology to beat Alinghi in a one-off series against the Swiss in February 2010. The courts forced the pair to race after a long-running feud stemming from the America's Cup in Valencia, where Alinghi beat Team New Zealand. Alinghi abandoned the America's Cup after losing the title.
At Cascais, Oracle Racing has brought two crews, for boats 4 and 5, just as it will in 2013 when it must train on its own while the challengers duel for a spot in the final.
Despite the technological advantage, Oracle Racing No. 5 skipper Russell Coutts knows the boats are difficult to handle. His boat capsized in June, and the Kiwi skipper fell nearly 23 feet into the water.
"You have to get everyone up to speed as quick as you possibly can because you know that someone will get hurt. It's not a matter of if someone is going to get hurt but when," Hutchinson said. "So everyone on the team has to be on pace with the boat to step in."
Changes are apparent in Cascais marina, where temporary structures house the teams during this traveling roadshow: Green Comm Racing of Spain; Team Korea; China Team; French pair Aleph and Energy Team; Emirates Team New Zealand; and official challenger of record, Artemis Racing.
America's Cup yachts have never raced so close to shore. The World Series also will present an alternative format with teams facing off in a speed trial and a winner-take-all finale.
"The biggest difference is the boats are all the same and here it's a level playing field — the differences come down to the sailors," skipper Mitch Booth of China Team said. "It's a true test of sailing skills and tactics.
Sailors come from a multihull, Olympic and America's Cup background.
"The sailors are more aerobic, all have lost a lot of weight because you have to be a lot more on your feet in these," Coutts explained. "Things are happening so much faster that you have to think, strategize, consult and you don't have time. Intuition comes into play.
"A capsize is possible if you make a mistake because every mistake becomes so much more graphic in these boats."
Coutts couldn't understand how Peyron — a veteran of multihull racing — wasn't expecting problems.
"He said he's never capsized — that's too conservative a way to race," said Coutts, who is 14-0 in America's Cup races. "If you're not pushing these boats to the limit then it's just shocking."
While most welcomed the new era of America's Cup, Barker also lamented the absence of Alinghi and billionaire owner Ernesto Bertarelli.
"It's a shame they're not here," Barker said. "They are a force in the America's Cup and very synonymous with the America's Cup."
Paul Logothetis can be followed at www.twitter.com/PaulLogoAP