NEWPORT, R.I. - The youngest skipper ever to win the America’s Cup and his four-man crew look like Spiderman on steroids. They effortlessly dance and dodge their way across the trampoline of the wing-sailed AC45 catamaran as it shoots across Narragansett Bay.
As a motorized support boat struggles to drop off a guest racer, one thing is crystal clear. This kind of sailing is now an extreme sport. Everyone on board wears helmets and is perpetually in motion.
The competitors are young, aerobically conditioned athletes in a dangerous and physically demanding battle. Sometimes they wear body armor, because 40-foot falls into carbon-fiber sails are a risk. As advertised, they truly are the best sailors on the fastest sailboats in the world.
The “guest racer’’ is basically a human anchor. He is a middle-aged journalist with just a bit too much ballast in the midsection.
Skipper Jimmy Spithill, the fiery, red-haired Australian who won the Cup for the US in 2010, assigns the shaky rookie a makeshift spot on the edge of the stern. Butt on the beam, legs on the trampoline, and heart in the stomach, it is an instant adrenaline buzz. Lean backward 6 inches and you’re swimming with the fishes.
This is not recreational sailing. There are no cushy seats, no downstairs galley, no cooler, and no beer. No bathroom, no wheel, no deck.
Most of the surface of the Oracle Team USA Spithill is a tightly wound trampoline covered with ropes that seem to be strategically placed to see who can trip over them first and drown upside-down.
Acceleration is rapid. There are two small red straps to hold onto.
“Don’t let go of these, ever,’’ says one of the crew.
But there is a nice big rope and pulley nearby that is very tempting.
“Whatever you do, don’t touch that,’’ says a crew member. “It will burn your hands. If you have to fall, fall. Go for a swim and we will fish you out.’’
A sea change
Eight multi-hulled boats from six countries are here to compete Thursday through Sunday in the America’s Cup World Series.
Our boat, Oracle Team USA Spithill, is currently in the lead after a series of regattas that already have been held in Portugal, the United Kingdom, San Diego, Naples, and Venice. The final race day, Sunday, will be televised live by NBC.
The series is a forerunner to the America’s Cup finals to be held in San Francisco Bay in September 2013.
But not since Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 has this city seen such a drastic change in performance.
It has been 29 years since the America’s Cup has been to Newport. Forever gone are the days of racing miles offshore. The new course is mere yards off the shoreline at Fort Adams State Park and the mansions of Newport.
Here, in the cradle of America’s Cup sailing, everything has changed since 1983. That was the fateful year that Australia II, with its secret keel, defeated the New York Yacht Club and ended the longest winning streak in sports history. Oddly enough, all the 45-foot catamarans are virtually the same today.
“We could jump on the Team New Zealand boat and they could jump on ours and you wouldn’t know the difference, except for the branding,’’ says Spithill.
Bigger, faster boats, shorter races with more lead changes, and stadium-style seating near the shore have replaced the old days of America’s Cup races being held 4 miles out to sea.
As former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom famously observed, “A race that is hard to see is going to be impossible to miss.’’
At Fort Adams State Park, the public has close access to the America’s Cup Village. There, spectators can quaff Moet & Chandon champagne at $19 per mini bottle at lawn viewing parties and then watch the races without binoculars.
But the guest racer’s spot is the greatest seat in the house. When all the sails are trimmed, and the sailors flock to one hull while the other hull goes airborne, there is a feeling of fragility and elation.
“It’s like being piggyback on the quarterback,’’ says Spithill, who has invited NFL players and rappers like MC Hammer for guest racing gigs. “They get on and they say, ‘Shoot, I had no idea this was America’s Cup,’ and they say, ‘Oh, I was expecting to get on, grab a gin-and-tonic, and sit on the side.’ ’’
Hammer was particularly impressed on his recent visit.
“Unbelievable,’’ he said. “You’re up in the air, anything can happen at any time. It’s extremely dangerous. Don’t kid yourself for one minute. If you’re not athletic, in shape, strong, and fearless, you don’t need to be out there.’’
Always flirting with danger
Russell Coutts, the winningest skipper in America’s Cup history, is the architect of the sport’s modern era, with younger athletes and catamarans. He skippers Oracle’s other entry.
“Let’s be honest,’’ says Coutts. “On the old boats, there were certain positions that required you to be fit and strong but there were other positions where if you were fit enough to walk across the room, that was good enough. That’s not what the elite part of the sport should represent.’’
But even pros like Coutts make tactical errors. Last year, on media day in San Francisco Bay, he flipped a catamaran and a crew member broke ribs.
“I should have turned the other way from what I did,’’ says Coutts. “I knew about half a second before it was the wrong decision. It’s like a car racer learning how late to brake into a turn: You probably don’t know what the limit is until you go past it a few times.’’
Spithill also has capsized a catamaran racing in New Zealand and loves pushing his luck. The Italians fondly call him “James Pitbull’’ because of his aggressiveness. If you see him coming at the turning marks, better get out of the way.
“The only way you can race these boats is with the foot on the accelerator,’’ he says.
The cats travel at a top speed of 30 knots. Today, we do about 25.
On board, Spithill never yells, he counts down: “5, 4, 3, 2, 1,’’ and a jib or gennaker is launched.
“On the fly, you don’t usually have a lot of time to talk about it,’’ he says. “Split-second decisions.
“Honestly, with this team, I don’t have to yell much. They just know what’s coming up. That’s what it’s all about on these boats. Every sailor has to be a tactician and know what’s going on. It’s all about anticipation of the next move.’’
Spithill turns just 33 tomorrow, but he vaguely remembers when America lost the Cup to Australia in 1983. He was a 3-year-old living in Pittwater, Australia.
“There were no roads out there,’’ he says. “You went to the mainland by boat, school by boat.
“Two of the guys on the Australia II were my neighbors. I have vivid memories of my parents going over their house. All I remember is my parents being incredibly drunk for about a month after this.’’
He was hooked on sailing. And at 30, he was drinking champagne from the oldest trophy in international sport.
A perfect moment
Spithill scoffs at those who criticize the catamarans and romanticize the 12-meter boats that sailed off Newport in 1983.
“I say get with the times, wake up,’’ he says. “I mean, it’s a new day and age. You’ve got to move with the technology. I think 12-meters on TV is boring, and a lot of sailors find them boring.’’
In the America’s Cup finals in September 2013, 72-foot catamarans will replace the 45s, and will be nearly twice as fast. Their sails will be wider than a jumbo jet.
“Putting 72-foot catamarans on TV in San Francisco Bay, people are going to watch that,’’ says Spithill. “You have to have the element of danger and risk, and frankly, the mono-hulls didn’t provide it.’’
Last weekend, Narragansett Bay was packed with families on boats. That made Spithill happy.
But in a few instances, the spectator boats got in the way and the crew had to take evasive action.
“I think people were pretty shocked at how quick and fast these boats are,’’ Spithill says.
On board, there is a final moment when the sails fill beautifully and the wind makes a whistling noise that sounds like a symphony. The boat seems to fly and sing at the same time. All is right in the universe.
And then it is over.
There’s the hum of an approaching motor boat, and the 20-minute guest racer time slot is over. The Oracle boat is about to get a lot faster without the extra weight.
When the guest racer is back on the chase boat, two sailboats block Oracle’s path, and Spithill and the crew launch way up in the air on one hull to avoid a crash.
For a second, it appears they will tip over. But they recover nicely, even without the human ballast aboard.
“There were some close calls,’’ Spithill says later with a giggle. “But no worries.’’Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.