America’s Cup Sails Changing Seas

Oracle Team USA, owned by Larry Ellison, is the defending America’s Cup champion. The team selected San Francisco as the venue for the 34th edition of one of the oldest sporting events in the world. Image courtesy of Gilles Martin-Raget/ACEA
Oracle Team USA, owned by Larry Ellison, is the defending America’s Cup champion. The team selected San Francisco as the venue for the 34th edition of one of the oldest sporting events in the world. Image courtesy of Gilles Martin-Raget/ACEA

By John Conroy

The AC72 catamaran is a high-tech nautical marvel and one of the drawing cards for the 34th America’s Cup. Touted as some of the world’s fastest boats, the 72-foot wing-sail catamarans, which are designed with hydrofoils, have been quite a sight as they slice across the San Francisco Bay at speeds of 44 knots (50 mph). And though every team participating in the Cup will be using this revolutionary class of yacht, the vessel’s design has led to several serious mishaps, and some say its cost has restricted competition in the signature offshore race, promoted as drawing “the best sailors, the fastest boats.”

Instead of the 10 challengers that Larry Ellison, owner of reigning champion Oracle Team USA, had expected at this year’s series, only three teams had the financial wherewithal (up to $100 million) to field the AC72. As of August, the teams positioned to buck Oracle during the September 7–21 finals were Luna Rossa Challenge and Artemis Racing—the Italian and Swedish teams, respectively—and Emirates Team New Zealand. In fact, the first race in July during the Louis Vuitton Cup to determine Oracle’s challenger featured the New Zealand team racing by itself. “One-boat races don’t make for a race,” said John Arndt, associate publisher of Bay Area sailing magazine Latitude 38 and an active backer of the event in his home waters.

But more serious issues have plagued the race. This spring, an Artemis team member died on a practice sail, prompting safety concerns over the AC72. And despite public assurances and marketing efforts—the power of the new boats will, in fact, likely produce historically fast results—the list of ensuing problems has included missed fundraising targets, lower revenue projections, fewer sponsors than expected, fewer jobs than estimated and community complaints about skewed priorities. All of them spotlight a frustrating reality: This America’s Cup has faced the kind of setbacks that would give any sports-event organizer nightmares.

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