Boating in San Francisco

By Kimball Livingston
Published: June/July 2013

San Francisco is the hot spot this August, as the America's Cup races bring the international sailing world to the West Coast. Here's a boater's inside guide to the bay, to river hideaways and wine country, and to the main event.

And Now, On To The Main Event!

Map of California with America's Cup course highlighted

This will not be your Dennis Conner's America's Cup, or your Ted Turner's, or your Harold Vanderbilt's, or your Sir Thomas Lipton's. The team that won sailing's greatest prize three years ago on a high-stakes gamble continues in high-stakes mode. Under the direction of Olympic gold medalist and four-time Cup winner Russell Coutts, Oracle Team USA has developed the fastest Cup in 162 years of this event, the world's oldest international sporting competition. It could also be the shortest, as the wags have it, if boats put themselves out of the running by capsizing, as one of Oracle's boats did last October on its eighth day of testing.

The 2013 America's Cup Contenders

Illustration of America's Cup course layout

Oracle Team USA, Golden Gate Yacht Club

Artemis Racing, Royal Swedish Yacht Club
Emirates Team New Zealand, Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron
Luna Rossa, Circolo della Vela Sicilia, Italy

America's Cup racing will take place downwind from the Golden Gate wind funnel.

That "boat" was repaired and is sailing again — it took five months — but not with the more complicated and probably more expensive portion of it, the solid wing sail that provides propulsion. That wing was completely destroyed. Picture a 131-foot structure of heat-cured film stretched over cored, carbon-fiber frames, reshaped for changing wind conditions by hydraulic actuators and costing north of $4 million. Each team is allowed to build only three wings, so destroying one just might matter. Part of the grand adventure of the 34th America's Cup is the jump to catamarans with their high speeds, and shifting from conventional soft sails to wings that deliver 40-percent more power per square foot — which turns out to be considerably more than anyone needs on a normal summer day on San Francisco Bay, one of the windiest popular boating spots in the world. They may have overdone it, but they're too far in to turn around.

Photo of Oracle Team USA America's Cup entry Photo: Gilles Martin-Raget

Wing sails seemed like the big deal of the America's Cup — until
the boats took off on hydrofoils at near-freeway speeds.

Catamarans? With wings? In the America's Cup? It's a sudden change based upon a calculated bet by Oracle Team USA, backed by software magnate Larry Ellison. It began as an attempt to leverage the brand value of the America's Cup to launch the professional international circuit that high-end sailing has been desperately wanting. The so-called America's Cup World Series, sailed by Cup teams in smaller cats — identical AC45s — has visited Italy, England, and the USA with great success, but without turning the corner to being a profitable business. When the racing came to San Francisco in 2012, however, it drew crowds — big, enthusiastic, cheering crowds made up of both hardcore sailors and the merely curious, who went away as fans. On that promising note, we can imagine that a successful 2013 America's Cup in custom, 72-foot cats could be a game changer. Throughout July and August, teams from Sweden, New Zealand, and Italy will sail elimination races to determine which team gets a crack at the Cup. Only one will qualify to race against the American defender, Oracle Team USA. Closing speeds of more than 70 knots will be unprecedented, as will the risks to crew and equipment in the event of a capsize or collision.

Larry Ellison says he has bankrolled the new-look America's Cup because he believes in it. He will never recoup his "investment," but the goal, which is proving very difficult, is to transform the top event in sailing into something commercially viable, with teams that make money for their owners (if they're successful), just like other sports teams. In the context of fractious city politics, fair to say, it's been a ride. And because pro sports are television-dependent, Ellison has also bankrolled the development of high-end sports graphics to help race announcers tell the story, and he signed off on an open-source agreement, so that all the data generated by the 34th America's Cup will be streamed to developers to do with as their imaginations imagine. No, not Vanderbilt's America's Cup.End of story marker

Kimball Livingston is an international sailor and journalist often called upon to explain the strange goings-on of the America's Cup. He also wrote the book on his home waters, Sailing The Bay.

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