Skip to main content

Fray on the Bay

San Francisco is hosting the America’s Cup for the first time in the history of the storied competition. Big winds, big catamarans, big crowds — it should be some spectacle

When the America’s Cup comes to San Francisco, so will an estimated 2.6 million more tourists than the city welcomes in a typical year. One of the longest-running international sporting events, the 11-week America’s Cup is also one of the largest — third only to World Cup soccer and the Olympics, as far as economic impact goes.

Image placeholder title

Yes, the Cup is bigger than the Super Bowl. And seeing that it has been almost two decades since the racing was hosted in the United States, enthusiasts are expected to flock to San Francisco to see what America’s Cup Event Authority CEO Stephen Barclay is calling “NASCAR on the water.” The competition in the lightning-quick AC72 catamarans will have folks holding their breath, given the training accident that took the life of two-time Olympic sailor Andrew “Bart” Simpson in May (more on the race changes stemming from that accident later in this story).

For sailing fanatics, attendance is practically a pilgrimage. Not a fanatic? There will be much more to do than watch sailboat racing, as you’ll discover shortly.

Image placeholder title

Between July 4 and Sept. 23, some four dozen races will be held on San Francisco Bay during the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger eliminations series and America’s Cup finals, plus several days of Red Bull Youth America’s Cup and superyacht racing. Hence, the ACEA is also billing the 12-week production as “The Summer of Sailing” — perhaps a play on “The Summer of Love,” which took place here 46 years ago when thousands of hippies gathered for a “Human Be-In” at Golden Gate Park, then swarmed the Haight-Ashbury district.

San Francisco remains a one-of-a-kind city, her residents idiosyncratic. But instead of Timothy Leary’s 1960s mantra, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” The Summer of Sailing promises to “turn up, tune up and watch ’em rip” because these colossal grand prix AC72 catamarans promise breathtaking excitement when they tear up the Bay at speeds as high as 43 mph. With their rigid wingsails and more than 6,000 square feet of “sail” area jutting 131 feet into the air, it’s sure to be an exhilarating spectacle. And the natural amphitheater of San Francisco Bay provides not only the best sailing conditions but optimal viewing, as well.

One of the world’s most spectacular natural harbors, the bay is protected by the Marin headlands to the north and the hilly terrain of the San Francisco peninsula on the opposite shore. The 1-mile entrance, spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge, opens to a relatively shallow estuary that stretches some 45 miles north to south and snakes another 40 miles inland. It gets toasty in California’s Central Valley, creating a pressure differential that draws the cool ocean breezes of the Pacific through the gate. Winds are practically guaranteed to be 10 to 20 knots, and the slot where it’s the most consistent and strong is the AC playground.

Image placeholder title

The racecourse sweeps from Crissy Field in the west to Pier 27/29 in the east and extends only as far north as Alcatraz. At no other time in the 162-year history of the Cup have matches been so close to shore and visible. Races will take place right in the shadow of San Francisco’s iconic skyline, with unprecedented viewing along nearly 4 miles of city front, plus surrounding vantage points.

Vantage points

Image placeholder title

Admission to the spectator venues is free, and they are divided between distinctive sites along the waterfront. They feature live feeds and commentary to supplement race viewing. If this summer’s event is anything like the America’s Cup World Series here last year — sailed in smaller AC45 cats — the atmosphere will be part carnival, part game show and a lot of fray on the bay.

Adjacent to the start and windward mark is the America’s Cup Village, which embraces Marina Green and the St. Francis and Golden Gate yacht clubs. Scores of food, drink and retail tents sprawl across this grassy field and jetty to create a festive atmosphere. Some of the finest viewing can be had here on bleachers overlooking the course for as little as $15, although pricier hospitality options exist, too. The village will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on race days only.

Follow the curve of land 2 miles east to America’s Cup Park, abreast the finish line. The newly renovated Pier 27/29 complex houses a slick new media center, fan zone and 9,000-seat concert pavilion that will feature shows from such artists as Steely Dan, Heart and the San Francisco Symphony. And there are restaurants and bars, including the AC34 Sports Bar with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the superyachts berthed alongside — so chic you’ll think you’re in Monte Carlo.

Show up when the park opens at 10 a.m. to enjoy the extravaganza, the swarms of paparazzi, the excitement when the boats dock out in the morning (about 11 a.m.) and when they return from racing. Watch the matches from the deck or pavilion, and afterward meet the skippers for a post-race chalk talk, interviews and autographs. The park is open until 7 p.m., later on concert days.

Feeling salty

Image placeholder title

The World War II Liberty Ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien offers a 50-yard-line view of the racecourse. Or go out on the water to watch from the perimeter on vessels that range from Yacht Lady, an 80-foot Monte Fino, to the schooner America, a 139-foot replica of the yacht that first won the America’s Cup. A few Ben Franklins will get you a bird’s-eye view at the Pier 39 garage rooftop lounge; it’s much ritzier than it sounds, with catering and posh furnished comfort overlooking the entire course.

Enjoy a day at each venue, but whatever you do, stay put. Races are fast and furious, so unless you’re as speedy as Michael Johnson — the Olympic gold medalist sprinter who, coincidentally, fell off the Oracle Team USA AC45 he was a guest aboard last summer — take in all that one venue has to offer and sample a new perspective another day. For instance, a ferry from Pier 39 will drop you off at Angel Island, a mile-square national park and oasis just north of Alcatraz. Stroll or take the tram up the tree-lined road to the bluffs for uninterrupted views of the entire course. Just don’t forget your binoculars.

Magnificent panoramas also can be had from the Golden Gate Bridge. From the south parking lot, follow the sidewalk about a mile, where the entire course will stretch out beneath you. North of the bridge, the Marin Vista Point turnoff has expansive views of the Bay, along with plenty of parking, rock walls for perching and loads of fresh air. When the racing is over, continue north another 40 miles to the California wine country to bask in exquisite estates, the rolling vineyards, and world-class wine and cuisine.

The docket

Image placeholder title

The Louis Vuitton Cup challenger elimination series opens July 4, and races will be held from July 7 through Aug. 30. The winner of that series faces off against defender Oracle Team Racing USA — backed by billionaire Larry Ellison and with CEO Russell Coutts, the most successful skipper in the history of the Cup — in the winner-take-all match for the Auld Mug.

In the LVC series — round-robin, semifinal and final races — Swedish team Artemis Racing, the challenger of record, is slated to square off against Emirates Team New Zealand and Italy’s Luna Rossa Challenge. However, Artemis’ AC72 was destroyed in a catastrophic capsize during training May 9, resulting in the death of crewmember Andrew “Bart” Simpson. Artemis announced in June that it planned to sail in the LVC but would miss the early races and have its other AC72 and crew ready to join the competition by the end of July.

In the wake of the tragedy, regatta director Iain Murray had recommended that the number of preliminary rounds be reduced. When Artemis confirmed its participation, the schedule was updated, and the preliminary rounds were reduced from five to seven to give the teams more maintenance time between races.

With the LVC wrapped and the challenger decided, there will be four days of Red Bull Youth America’s Cup races. The America’s Cup Finals commence Sept. 7 in a best-of-17 series to decide who will take home the oldest trophy in international sport.

Of course, the schedule allots several reserve days — thanks to the vagaries of wind — so you’ll have plenty of time to soak up the unique character of San Francisco. Have an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café. Ride a cable car up Nob Hill. Catch a Giants baseball game at AT&T Park. Roll down the grassy lawn at the Palace of Fine Arts. Go for a ride aboard USA76, a 2003 vintage International America’s Cup Class yacht. Feast on seafood and chocolate and fresh-baked sourdough bread at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Image placeholder title

San Francisco is a feast, but Cup fever has added spice, with signs and trinkets flooding the city. Even the metro buses have bumper stickers that read “Merci, Larry!” for bringing the 34th America’s Cup to San Francisco Bay.

For information, concert and race schedules, events and more, visit

See related articles:

- San Fran lay lines

- Be a Cup rock star for a day

August 2013 issue