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America's Cup in San Francisco 2013 - A Beginner's Guide


America's Cup in San Francisco 2013 - A Beginner's Guide

Oracle Team USA's 45-foot-long catamaran flips over during an America's Cup race in San Francisco in Oct. 2012. Teams were racing AC45s, forerunners to the AC72s that sail in the Sept. 2013 Cup final.

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images


The America's Cup is the toughest and most prestigious competition in sailing, and the oldest continually contested championship in any sport. First held in 1851, the race was named after the winner, the American schooner America. The U.S. loner soundly beat a slew of British boats (the second-place finisher was eight minutes behind) and took home a stately silver trophy. For more than a century afterward, the U.S. managed to ward off all of its challengers.

The only other countries that have won the America's Cup are Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland. In 1983, the U.S. was defeated for the first time, by Australia. The U.S. won back the cup in 1987, but then lost to New Zealand in 1995, which in turn lost to Switzerland in 2003. The U.S. team, funded mainly by Oracle Corporation founder and CEO Larry Ellison, won back the America's Cup in 2010.


During the summer, San Francisco Bay hosts the last rounds of the 2013 America's Cup. From July 7 until August 30, 2013, three countries are slated to compete in what's known as the Louis Vuitton Cup. The winner of the LV regatta proceeds to the America's Cup final in September--where it fights for the trophy against the defending champion, Ellison's Oracle Team USA. (There's a complete racing schedule on the America's Cup website).

The racing teams are named after their countries and after or by their principal sponsors. The Louis Vuitton Cup contestants are: Artemis Racing of Sweden (the team's owner, a Swedish oil magnate and avid sailor, likes the Greek goddess); Emirates Team New Zealand (sponsored by Emirates airline); and Luna Rossa Challenge of Italy (sponsored by Prada).


America's Cup has some bizarre terms that wouldn't fly in any other sport. The winner sets the rules for the next race; since Oracle Team USA won the last competition, in 2010, team owner Ellison got to choose the next location and type of vessel to race.

The billionaire specified an unprecedented, technological wonder of a boat for the 2013 LV Cup challenge and America's Cup final: The AC72, a 72-foot-long catamaran with a towering wing sail that can fly faster than 40 knots (46 mph). It's meant to be the fastest boat ever made. It looks terrific on television, a factor that could attract a wider audience.

But its complexity and cost have deterred several teams and potential contestants and sponsors. The AC72 alone costs $8 million and comprises less than 10 percent of a team's budget; toss in sailors, designers, other staffers and other expenses, and the total budget amounts to about $100 million. It is also possibly fatal.

In a preliminary regatta, the America's Cup World Series held here in the fall of 2012, the U.S. and seven competing countries sailed AC45s, identical 45-foot catamarans. But four countries bailed since then, figuring that to build, fine-tune and power their own AC72s for the contest's next stages required too much effort and expense.

In early May 2013, Sweden's AC72 capsized in San Francisco Bay, and a crew member died. Cup officials subsequently issued 37 new rules to increase safety and make the boats easier to control, which set off arguments and mud-slinging among the teams. The New Zealand and Italian teams protested the new rules. With Sweden scrambling to rebuild and Italy initially boycotting, most of the 15 Louis Vuitton round-robin "races" weren't races--because only one boat showed up.

That only four countries are in the race (as opposed to eight or more in previous times) reinforces the view that America's Cup is an unpopular game run by and for the rich elite, and especially so this year. (As San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist Ann Killion wrote, "San Francisco has been hosting the Larry Ellison Vanity Project"). It's uncertain whether the city will get the tourist and economic windfalls that it had originally hoped for.


Location - For the first time in the 162-year history of the America's Cup, the racing is in San Francisco. (San Francisco Bay is widely respected and even dreaded among sailors--"If you can sail San Francisco Bay, you can sail anywhere" is a common saying--so we are long overdue as a host). This is also the first year since 1995 that the competition has been in the U.S.

Boats - With wing sails and hydrofoils, the radical and possibly reckless AC72 catamarans are designed to be the fastest sailboats ever (see "Cup Controversies" above).

Race course- For the first time, the races take place in a confined bay; previously, they have been at least a few miles offshore. The race course in San Francisco is closer to shore than it has been in any other host city--a boon for spectators. The course is also relatively small and compact, so the 72-foot-long giants must do tight maneuvers.

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