America's Cup Finals Race 4 Start
There is a moment when the yachts racing in this year’s America’s Cup go from being mere boats to something more like flying machines.
It happens at around 17 knots, or 20 miles per hour, when both hulls of the carbon-fiber catamarans rise out of the water and the entire craft skims over the surface on a thin hydrofoil beneath the downwind pontoon.
Free of the water’s drag, the vessels accelerate to speeds as great as 50 miles per hour.
America's Cup : racing above water
New York Times interactive
New York Times interactive
The sportswriter Red Smith has been credited with remarking that the America’s Cup is about “as exciting as watching grass grow.”
For most of the event’s 162-year history, racing took place far from shore and in heavy monohull boats that displaced lots of water and plodded around the courses at average speeds of around 10 miles per hour.
But after winning the last cup in Valencia, Spain, in 2010, Larry Ellison, the billionaire software mogul and the owner of Oracle Team USA, pushed for changes to try to make things more exciting and spectator-friendly.
Because the cup’s charter — known as the Deed of Gift — permits the defender to choose the venue of the next competition, he was able to have it take place in San Francisco Bay, within sight of the shore, where organizers have put up grandstands.
Ellison and his team also got the competition to accept a new boat design that features 131-foot-tall wing sails atop 72-foot-long hydroplaning catamarans.
These yachts, called AC72s, now travel nearly four times as fast as the boats of old — and for sustained bursts they can move more than twice as fast as even the multihulls that competed in 2010. (Those craft didn’t hydrofoil.)
John Rousmaniere, who writes about sailing and the history of the America’s Cup, describes them as “Indy cars without brakes.”
Oracle Team USA vs Emirates Team NZ
Getting spectators to embrace the souped-up sport has not been without challenges, however. Organizers were expecting as many as 12 teams to vie for the opportunity to take on Oracle Team USA in September, before racing began in July to determine the finalist.
But the cost of an America’s Cup campaign — which can creep as high as $100 million for the expensive boats and more than three years of salaries for crew and support staff — deterred potential entrants, and only three challengers showed up.
The poor turnout has both dampened the economic boost the host city was counting on and reduced the potential global TV audience.
There are doubts about the safety of the yachts themselves, too.
Last October, one of Oracle’s boats capsized during training, and the wing sail broke into pieces.
No one was hurt then, but in May, a 36-year-old British sailor and Olympic medalist named Andrew Simpson was killed when the yacht of the Swedish team Artemis Racing capsized and broke up during training, trapping the crewman under water.
While Simpson’s death is not the first for an America’s Cup sailor — two crewmen were killed in separate training events in 1903, and two more while training in 1935 and 1999 — the incident prompted a slight reduction in the upper wind speed limit for races.
“These boats are immensely powerful,” Rousmaniere says, referring to the AC72s.
“It’s an entirely different kind of boat — a whole new realm.”
When the photographer Mike Escamilla showed up in July to take pictures aboard one of Oracle’s two racing yachts, he had little appreciation for the speed or danger of the AC72.
Escamilla, a Los Angeles-based professional stuntman and BMX rider, has also made a name for himself online with his videos and photographs of extreme sports.
But he knew next to nothing about the America’s Cup.
“I thought I was going to jump on some sailboats that were kind of fast and shoot some photos,” he says.
The first sign that the experience might not be so routine came when Escamilla checked in at headquarters on Pier 80 in San Francisco.
He was given a dry suit, a life preserver, a harness and a helmet, as well as a knife and an air canister, to help him survive in case he got trapped underwater in a capsize.
Escamilla was lucky to get onboard at all.
After Simpson’s death, it was decided that the extra spot onboard — traditionally reserved for sponsors, dignitaries and members of the news media — would no longer be available during racing. The boats, the thinking goes, are too dangerous for all but seasoned crews.
Oracle agreed to allow Escamilla onboard for what turned out to be 45 minutes on a practice run.
He took most of his pictures on small and light GoPro digital cameras, often affixed to parts of the boat or a small telescoping pole, to help him get shots above the spray and the scrum of the 11-man crew jumping back and forth across the trampoline between the boat’s hulls.
The restrictions seemed a bit much to Escamilla, who once back-flipped his BMX bike over the rotating blades of a helicopter for a show on MTV.
But as soon the yacht lifted out of the water on its hydrofoils, Escamilla says, he began to understand.
The ride became eerily smooth as the hulls left the surface, the crew scrambling about all the while to keep what amounted to an awkwardly shaped airplane from going nose first into the sea.
On these downwind runs, Escamilla was asked to stow his pole — the risk of it flying away and hitting someone was too great, he was told, and besides, he needed to hang on.
“I’ve been in a lot of situations, and I don’t really get scared — I get concerned,” Escamilla says. “When we got moving, I spent a lot of time looking at people’s faces to see how things were going, and there were times when I was very concerned.”
After just 25 minutes, Escamilla says, he was spent.
The sailors themselves were just getting started on a practice session that would last hours, in preparation for an event that could consist of as many as 17 races in early September.
When he debarked Oracle’s yacht by way of a support boat, Escamilla says, he did so with a certainty that for better or worse, the America’s Cup is now extreme.
“Of all the things I’ve ever done in my life,” he says, “this was one of gnarliest.”
- CNN Mainsail : America's Cup now 'a new-age speedster' event with high hopes and critics
- LA Times : America's Cup: Huge egos, fast boats
- GeoGraage blog : New-look America's Cup set for 2013 on catamarans / America's Cup catamaran capsizes during demo / What went wrong in the deadly America's Cup crash ?