The America's Cup is America's again

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BMW Oracle Racing makes a statement with two-race sweep over defending Swiss in racing off Spain

After a 15-year absence, the America's Cup, yacht racing's most prestigious prize, has come home to the United States. Victory for the U.S. syndicate, BMW Oracle Racing, was swift and decisive.

Capping off a long and litigious build-up to the 33rd America's Cup, U.S. syndicate BMW Oracle Racing's trimaran swept the Deed of Gift Match.

Software billionaire Larry Ellison's massive trimaran, USA-17, needed only two races to reclaim the silver ewer that was first awarded to the schooner America in 1851. Skippered by Australian James Spithill, USA-17 easily outran the catamaran that biotech billionaire and Alinghi syndicate head Ernesto Bertarelli was helming himself in his defense for the Société Nautique de Genève. The racing took place Feb. 12 and 14 off Valencia, Spain.

The 33rd Cup competition began with two years of bitter litigation in New York State Supreme Court. The animosity continued to the end, culminating in a mutiny of sorts aboard the committee boat when the principal race officer tried to start the second and final race.

In their legal sparring, both Ellison and Bertarelli probably spent in excess of eight figures before a judge finally told them to take their fight to the water. The cost most likely was even higher for the campaigns - boatbuilding, travel and living expenses, salaries for crews, skippers (several per boat), naval architects, designers, computer engineers.

And then there are the electronics. Even Spithill's sunglasses were fitted out to show electronic displays of speed, stresses on the wing and the hull - sort of like a fighter pilot's helmet.

Breaking ground

Ellison's heavier, stronger trimaran sported a rigid wing for a sail - an articulated wing with ailerons and spoilers such as you might see on an airplane. But what aircraft has a wing this big? It is 223 feet long - or tall. That compares to 102 feet for a Boeing 747 and 143 feet for an Airbus 380.

The boats are huge. Each measures 90 feet on the waterline (close to 100 overall) and has a beam of 90 feet. While big cats and big trimarans are nothing new, these carbon fiber/epoxy/Kevlar machines break new ground and are very fast.

The giant wing propelled USA-17 to victory by huge margins over Bertarelli's Alinghi 5, which carried a rig of traditional soft sails. Ellison's wing was so powerful that during the downwind leg of the first race - a 40-mile course comprising 20-mile upwind and downwind legs - BOR showed speeds of 27 knots in around 8 knots of breeze. The pattern held during the second race - a triangular course consisting of a 13-mile beat to windward followed by two 13-mile reaches - when the U.S. boat was clocked at more than 33 knots on a broad reach.

In both races, Alinghi was penalized before the start and had to complete a penalty turn. In the first, Spithill forced Bertarelli into a blocking error in the dial-up before the start, and in the second, Bertarelli was late getting into the starting box. Neither penalty affected the outcome.

In each race, the Swiss grabbed the lead on the first leg. In the first, Spithill ran over the start line before the gun, had to claw his way back to restart and then found himself stalled. That's not hard to do in a multihull. But halfway up the first leg, he was back in command and never lost the lead. He finished 1,531 yards ahead of Alinghi at the end of the downwind run.

In the second race, Alinghi caught the shifting wind at the start and was almost to the windward mark when Spithill slid USA-17 between Alinghi 5 and the mark boat, rounding ahead by 24 seconds. The Americans then stretched it out on both reaching legs, winning by 5 minutes, 26 seconds after the Swiss completed their penalty turn.

The mutiny

The second race nearly didn't start because the Alinghi representatives aboard the committee boat did not agree with principal race officer Harold Bennett of New Zealand. The Swiss syndicate believed the waves were too high to race - more than 1 meter. Bennett didn't see it that way.

After several unsuccessful attempts, billionaire Larry Ellison (here with skipper James Spithill) kisses the Cup he finally returned to U.S. hands.

With just minutes to go before an automatic 4:30 p.m. cancellation for the day, Bennett saw that the wind was filling in and racing could start. He gave the order, but the Alinghi reps refused to carry out their assignments - to work the flags and signals. Bennett recruited BOR's Tom Ehman and the committee boat driver, who is a registered international umpire, to work the flags.

"It was a perfect breeze," Bennett said later, claiming he had never heard of a race committee at any regatta deciding they wanted to prevent a race from being run.

Ehman called it "the most disgraceful behavior I have ever encountered."

In an oblique reference to the committee boat rebellion, Ellison told the post-race press conference that the 34th America's Cup will have "completely independent" umpires. "It will be an independent group ... and there will be a level playing field for all competitors," he says.

In the legal battle in New York State Supreme Court, Bertarelli's lawyers were on the losing end of most of the decisions and the appeals stemming from them. The legal actions started almost immediately after the Swiss successfully defended the America's Cup in 2007, when Bertarelli announced that a newly established Spanish yacht club would be the challenger of record and that the Swiss, in effect, would write the rules.

Ellison took Alinghi to court, disputing the validity of challenging Club Náutico Español and throwing down the gauntlet as a Deed of Gift challenge - one-on-one, as permitted by the DOG, the document that governs Cup racing. The court agreed with him.

A 'high-tech race'

The America's Cup has almost always been raced in monohulls. The exception was in 1988, when New Zealand's Michael Fay issued a rogue challenge with a 130-foot monohull and Dennis Conner responded by beating him soundly in a catamaran - with a wing sail. But the 2010 Cup pitted multihull against multihull, both of which are ahead of the curve when it comes to state-of-the-art.

"This particular America's Cup has had a lot of interest because for the first time in a long time it featured two [of the] fastest sailboats in the world," Ellison said at the final press conference. He said the competition tested the limits of what is possible, "marrying high-speed sailing and material science."

"It was really a high-tech race," he says. "And a bunch of people who really aren't that interested in sailing followed it pretty closely. We think that is important for our sport."

Chief among those high-tech advances is the wing mast that soars 20 stories and has a series of flaps that can be individually adjusted for optimum performance. The control system for the wing uses a small engine to power the hydraulics. By the way, this was the first Cup to allow boats to carry engines to hoist sails, one of Alinghi's court victories.

The wing rig rests on a ball to allow for movement and is held up by conventional stays strong enough to take loads up to 100 tons. There are 250 sensors on the hull and wing that feed performance and wind-speed information to a central database, collecting more than 28,000 data points per second.

The trimaran has port and starboard helm stations, and watching Spithill crawl from one to the other during tacks was exciting. He scrambled like a spider - a spider wearing a backpack that received wireless electronic signals for speed, direction and a lot of other information, much of which was transmitted to his sunglasses.

The America's Cup has always been a development class. Even the schooner America was technologically advanced over the other racing yachts of its day. Queen Victoria, who attended that first race off the Britain's Isle of Wight in 1851, asked her equerry after America finished, "And who is second?"

The response was telling: "There is no second, your majesty."

A clash of egos

Throughout its history, America's Cup racing has attracted men with big egos and deep wallets. The names Vanderbilt and Lipton stand out, as do Baron Marcel Bich (he made all those pens) and Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond.

Why do they come? And why have they come multiple times, as have Bertarelli and Ellison? One piece of America's Cup lore is attributed to Australian newspaper magnate Sir Frank Packer, who in 1970 was asked why he was there for a second time. "Alcohol," he responded, "and delusions of grandeur."

So where does the America's Cup go from here? Ellison sailed under the burgee of San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, and people in the City by the Bay would love to see it raced there. But San Franciscan Dick Enersen, writer and sailing filmmaker who has covered the America's Cup since 1974, says it's probably not possible.

For starters, San Francisco Bay is a major commercial shipping venue. "There is only one part of the bay which is both open enough and deep enough for a 3-mile - or anything close to it - circle," says Enersen. "Even the middle of the bay is not very good, since the marks would have to be set in very deep, very tidal places and the area is sliced to bits by shipping lanes and ferry routes."

It also would be difficult to find enough real estate for the syndicates' shore bases, and permits would be very expensive and difficult to obtain.

Where else? Ellison has reportedly just bought Astors' Beechwood mansion in Newport, R.I. Or the racing could return to Spain, where the Valencia winds are surer, at least in the summer, and the infrastructure is already in place.

Italian challenge

Though details of the next Cup were still emerging, this much was known at press time: Ellison and company have accepted a challenger of record for the 34th America's Cup. The challenge is from Italy's Club Nautico di Roma and its syndicate, Mascalzone Latino - owned by world champion sailor Vincenzo Onorato. Mascalzone Latino sailed in the 2003 and 2007 challenger elimination series.

Another certainty is that the technology will continue to advance, and some will likely trickle down to beer-can racers over a period of years because, after all, the America's Cup is a development class, and developments that work make their way down the line in sailing.

And don't rule out the possibility that the next Cup might be sailed in multihulls. They're very fast - and very fast has always been the American way.

This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.