In America's Cup, boats are the stars

Victor R. Caivano/AP Photo
BMW Oracle Racing owner Larry Ellison poses next to his BOR 90 boat. He has been involved in a long legal fight with biotech tycoon Ernesto Bertarelli over America's Cup details.



VALENCIA, Spain --- On a recent visit to his native Australia, America's Cup helmsman Jimmy Spithill squeezed in the time to get his pilot's license.

It was a keen decision, considering that he has his hands on the wheel of one of the most mind-blowing sailboats ever built.

When the 33rd America's Cup begins Monday in this Mediterranean port, the boats will be the stars.

And boy, can these beasts fly.

Spithill will steer USA, a 90-by-90-foot trimaran representing American challenger BMW Oracle Racing, of San Francisco, which is owned by software magnate Larry Ellison. It will try to wrest the oldest trophy in international sports away from two-time defending champion Alinghi, of Switzerland, whose equally massive catamaran, Alinghi 5, could be steered by syndicate boss Ernesto Bertarelli or Ed Baird of St. Petersburg, Fla.

They are the fastest, most powerful and downright extreme boats in the 159-year history of the America's Cup. When they hook into even the slightest breeze, their windward hulls fly off the water by up to 20 feet.

Capable of sailing at up to three times the speed of the wind, USA has flirted with 50 knots. Conventional America's Cup yachts average 11 or 12 knots under good conditions.

BMW Oracle Racing kept pushing the limits late last year when it added a radical wing sail, which towers 223 feet off the deck and is bigger than the wing of an Airbus A380, the world's biggest passenger airliner.

The multihulls are the byproduct of a bitter, 21/2-year legal fight between Ellison and Bertarelli, two of the world's wealthiest men. Though convoluted and contentious, the court case has brought the stodgy old America's Cup decidedly into the 21st century.

"I think it's probably the coolest part of this whole exercise, given that we've had to go through the courts and there's been that sort of, I guess, a downer," Spithill said.

"But the real upside is that thing," he added, motioning toward the black-and-white, triple-hulled giant. "Whatever happens, this is always going to be something that'll be really cool to be a part of. OK, two teams are going to go out, and obviously we want to win, but the fact that this has been done, I think, is a real milestone in the sport."

With their curving crossbeams, the boats resemble giant water bugs. Alinghi 5 is sleek. USA is bulkier.

While USA's middle hull is 90 feet long, its outer hulls are more than 100 feet long. Alinghi 5's hulls are 110 feet long. But it's the 90 feet of load-waterline that is the important length.

The scale of these boats is off the charts.

Plop USA down on the infield at Yankee Stadium and it would cover each base and home plate. Lay the wing sail on an NFL field and it would stretch from one goal line to just past the opposite 26-yard line.

Alinghi 5's trampoline, the mesh material that serves as the deck, is twice as big as a tennis court. Its mast is as tall as a 20-story building, and a crane is required to lift the furled, 1,300-pound mainsail off the boat each night.

It takes 22 people to carry the furled, 660-pound headsail onto shore.

USA already was a nautical beast when the syndicate added a radical wing sail late last year. It looks just like the wing of an airplane, with eight flaps on the trailing edge.

"I've really gotten into the flying thing," Spithill said, and he doesn't mean just in an airplane.

These boats are dream projects for designers and engineers. But even the sailors can't ignore the simple "wow" factor.

"To do it on this scale is something pretty amazing," said BMW Oracle Racing' skipper and CEO Russell Coutts, a three-time America's Cup winner. "I don't think we'll see the same thing again in our lifetimes."




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