The latest generation of America’s Cup yachts are ready to make their debuts in the 34th edition of a sailing classic that promises speed, stealth and a little uncertainty.
The first of three World Series events this year is off the Portuguese coast in Cascais, where a newly-introduced class of catamarans will streak though the Atlantic Ocean at speeds of up to 48kph — some of the quickest that the oldest competition in international sport has ever seen.
The World Series is effectively a training exercise ahead of the Louis Vuitton Cup, where boats will fight to become the designated challenger to defending champion Oracle Racing in the America’s Cup. Both cups will be raced in 2013 in San Francisco.
In Cascais, seven challengers from six nations are looking to give Oracle cause for concern during a nine-day event that marks the first stage on the way to San Francisco, where the American syndicate will have to defend the Auld Mug trophy.
The AC45 wing-sailed class boats are 13.5m long, 21.5m high and sailed by a team of five. And they are just a prelude to the massive 22m long multihulls that will be used come San Francisco.
Getting your feet wet is important.
“From a racing standpoint it’s going to be brutal at times, but that’s part of the growing pains — it doesn’t come without hiccups,” Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said on Friday. “These are so high-tech that when they are pushed to the limits that’s where you can see mistakes.”
The “fast cats,” as America’s Cup organizers label them, certainly present a big jump for the competition, with Energy Team skipper Loick Peyron coining “turbo engine” feel to describe the new series.
While America’s Cup sailing has been called Formula One on water before, the changes are more than just down to speed.
“It’s quite physical, the boats are unbelievably high performing — it’s just a new lease on life,” Artemis skipper Terry Hutchinson said. “What we’re getting ready to embark on here is something we’ve never seen before.”
Oracle Racing is the overwhelming favorite as it comes into the series with an advantage on all competitors after using the technology to beat Alinghi in a one-off series against the Swiss in February last year.
The courts forced the pair to race after a long-running feud born out of the 32nd edition in Valencia, when Alinghi beat Team New Zealand. Alinghi abandoned the America’s Cup after losing the title.
In Cascais, Oracle Racing has brought two crews, for boats 4 and 5, just as it will in the summer of 2013 when it must train on its own while the challengers duel it out for their spot in the final.
Despite the technological advantage, Oracle Racing No. 5 skipper Russell Coutts knows the boats are difficult to handle after capsizing in June. The Kiwi skipper fell nearly 7m into the water.
“You have to get everyone up to speed as quick as you possibly can because you know that someone will get hurt — it’s not a matter of if someone is going to get hurt but when,” Hutchinson said. “So everyone on the team has to be on pace with the boat to step in.”
“A capsize is possible if you make a mistake because every mistake becomes so much more graphic in these boats,” Coutts added.
Coutts could not understand how Peyron — a veteran of multihull racing — was not expecting problems.
“He said he’s never capsized — that’s too conservative a way to race,” said Coutts, who is 14-0 in America’s Cup races. “If you’re not pushing these boats to the limit then it’s just shocking.”