Americas Cup World Series: Real Sailors Do Not Wear Pads

This past weekend’s first installment of the America’s Cup World Series, the quartet of warm-up regattas leading up to the big race in September 2013, sure packed enough excitement, almost as much as saying “toy boat” three-thousand times fast. Double-hulled catamarans with fixed carbon-fiber sails larger than Boeing 727 wings zipped around San Francisco Bay to the delight of spectators sitting along the rocks. Sailors from the Oracle team wore helmets—helmets—draped in the Red Bull logo, which sponsors the American squad. Professional snowboarder Travis Rice was brought on board as their celebrity guest. And if you couldn’t make it to the Bay in person, the race was televised on NBC using Sportvision’s new LiveLine technology; similar to the trickery that makes hockey pucks glow and first-down lines yellow. From a helicopter’s POV, graphics are thrown over the water to show where the boats are headed and how fast (they go up to 40 mph). It’s like watching a video game, or a life insurance commercial. Which is all to say, toyboat-toyboat-toyboat-toyboat-toyboat.

I joined the sailing team at my college freshman year, having never been in a sailboat prior. I was on the surf team in middle school. I liked the ocean. I enjoy mildly competitive sports. And I didn’t want to join a fraternity. Absolutely didn’t want to join a fraternity. The information meeting for sailing consisted of a bunch of nerds with sunglasses hanging from croakies, talking about liquor in that endearing way that suggests they had no idea what they were talking about. I was sold.

At some universities, sailing is serious business, i.e. they have to sail in cold, windy waters and wear neoprene hazmat-looking suits. We wore shorts and sailed around in Newport (CA) Harbor, which is dead as all hell thanks to the vacation houses blocking the wind off the shore. It was a gentle thing; I imagine George-Michael Bluth would’ve been on my sailing team had he been a few years older.

But save a couple novelty regattas, college sailing is dinghy sailing—we used little two-person boats called 420s (not past me to chuckle), and they never went faster than the pace of a steady jog. A brand new boat costs about $7,000, and plenty of schools (like mine) relied on used and/or donated boats. I think to be a member of a fraternity costs something like $2,000 a year (those tank tops don’t buy themselves). The sailing team had dues of $500 a year, which included the dock rental fees and the cost of traveling to San Francisco and Santa Barbara. And Hawaii. And Oregon.

The last time an America’s Cup race happened was 2010, when Oracle founder and general rich man Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle squad, skippered by the Australian wunderkind Jimmy Spithill, took first prize (the only prize). But the race was marked by a mess of litigation that gave way to a two-team showdown between Oracle and Alinghi, an Italian squad bankrolled by the Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli. Their boat, Alinghi 5, was a 90-foot catamaran that purportedly cost over 20 million euros to build. Oracle’s boat, the USA-17, was in turn a trimaran that put a $400 million dent in Ellison’s pocket. USA-17 won the match 2-0.

The first regatta I skippered in was a low-stakes race off the Santa Barbara pier. College regattas are broken into “Varsity A&B” and “JV A&B” divisions, so I was, of course, placed at the helm of the JV B boat, which had “Pretty in Pink” written in neon script across the stern for reasons too tedious to include here (like I said, used boats). It was a sunny day, with a mild breeze hovering around 8 knots. To put that in context for the non-sailor, suffice it to say my hair looked awesome when hit with an 8-knot breeze.

All races begin with a designated five-minute waiting period before you’re allowed to hit the starting line (i.e. the imaginary line between a buoy and an anchored boat). Because 420s are cheap and lots of colleges like to participate in these things, most races see about 30 boats on the line. Sailors insist that the five minutes are a period meant for tactical jockeying—everyone seemed to be shouting things like “two minutes!” and “don’t hit us, motherf**ker!”—but from what I surmised, it was just a time to reflect and enjoy the sea. Kind of like the entire rest of the race.

After scooting off the imaginary starting line, my crew Gina and I chatted a bit about when we wanted to “tack” and when we wanted to “go to Isla Vista.” After rounding the windward mark, we jibed towards shore and popped up on a wing, meaning we put the main sail on one side and the jib on the other, such that we just drifted downwind like a pirate ship. Plus, there were waves. And because of my experience as a competitive 12-year-old surfer, I started blowing past other sailboats, pumping along the rollers like a porpoise. The race went once more back around, giving us another chance to surf in before we floated over the finish line in 15th place. 15th place! We beat half the boats!

Our coach, an affable guy in his early thirties who stood about five-foot-four and had that speech impediment little kids have where they can’t pronounce their “r”s said he was so impressed, he’d pencil me in to skipper the next day.

Well, the next day was cold and windy—about double the good-hair threshold. Our knees shook as we pushed off the shore. We made it a good 50 feet before needing to tack—otherwise, we’d hit the pier. As I inched the tiller over, the wind flung the boom around like a guillotine and nailed Gina in the back. We capsized immediately. Gina fell into the water. She started to cry. We never made it to the starting line, and that was the last time I ever skippered a sailboat. 

In 2013, five teams will compete in the America’s Cup final in San Francisco, all sailing the AC72 (72 feet long, as opposed to 45, and with a wing three times as large). Those responsible for building the boats say they’re all the less forgiving. If one of these things capsizes, that’s a four-story fall to the water—enough to break bones, at least. The whole purpose of this World Series set of races is to get the sailors used to the boats and the fans excited about the event, but by the time these 72s are ready, it’ll be race time, and the 11 sailors per team will be pretty much (*cough*) winging it. For what it’s worth, we’re at least talking about an even fight. Team Korea will have no less experience than New Zealand, Italy, Sweden or the U.S. And with Sportvision’s zippy effects, it ought to make for gripping TV. I just don’t know if you’d call it sailing.

On a 420, there are two strings—one red, one blue—sewn into the top of the sail, and they blow straight back when you’re at the perfect angle heading upwind. Either way, you can feel the breeze in your fingertips; it gets a little tighter with each click of the sheets through the blocks. Pull just a little, it feels like you’re cupping the wind with your hand. And when a puff comes rolling down, you pull in a little tighter, and a little tighter, until the boat starts to keel, and you and your partner have to pop up onto the rail, stick your feet through a strap, and hang your entire torso out over the water, dipping your heavy head all the way back, your eyes glaring up at the clouds and your hair rinsing in the wake as it rushes by, and you can’t help but think, thank God I’m not wearing a helmet, because this feels too good.