11/19/2012 11:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

America's Cup Boat's Capsizing Sparks Questions, Fears

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Larry Ellison's new 72-foot America's Cup boat capsized on a practice run and was sucked through the Golden Gate in a crippled mess, the second-guessing and doubts among the sailing community began: Has Ellison's plan to turn the world's most famous yacht race into a high-tech white-knuckle NASCAR of the sea gone too far for speed?

"Everyone wants the fastest boat," said Richard Spindler, founder and publisher of Latitude 38, a sailing magazine based in Mill Valley. "But you can't win the race unless you finish."

Now, a month after Oracle Racing's new, custom-made USA 17 cartwheeled into San Francisco Bay, hurled its hotshot crew into the cold waters and crumpled the main sail structure, Ellison's pride is on the line as the sailing syndicate races against the clock to perform repairs and be ready to compete by September's America's Cup finals.

After winning the last Cup, Ellison was allowed to dictate the size and basic design of the boats for all the entries in this year's race. But some doubters are wondering whether the towering catamarans are too unwieldy and expensive and should follow the lead of Howard Hughes' giant flying boat, the "Spruce Goose" -- which was shelved for good after one flight.

Even America's Cup officials are talking about downsizing the catamaran for future races. But there's no time to turn back for this race.

"It's definitely a setback," Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill said of the newly built boat's capsize Oct. 16. He was at the helm and blames his risky maneuvers in especially rough conditions, not the boat design, for the catastrophe. "But it's not one that will stop us from winning the Cup," he said.

The boat's wreck on only its eighth practice run has focused scrutiny on the fundamental design of the so-called AC72 -- a new class of America's Cup boat built for excitement and speed. All three challengers have launched their customized versions, and at least one competitor is already complaining that the rigid wing serving as a mast and sail is too big.

If Ellison's team loses, the event he won in Spain in 2010 and brought for the first time to San Francisco -- promising millions of dollars in economic development and a thrilling spectator experience -- would move to the winning boat's home port.

Stephen Barclay, CEO of the America's Cup Event Authority, said the 72-footers are not too dangerous for the bay, but they are being reconsidered for future races because they are so expensive and big, requiring upward of 30 people to get them in and out of the water by crane. Only three teams, New Zealand, Sweden and Italy, could afford to challenge Oracle for the trophy next summer, compared with roughly a dozen challengers in past years.

Still, the capsize exposed the fundamental dilemma of the America's Cup: How extreme can a boat design be when it is racing in the bay's already extreme conditions with the most competitive sailors on the planet intent on going as fast as possible?

Along with wearing crash helmets and sharp knives strapped to body suits, Spithill's crew will now tuck into their chest pockets mini oxygen canisters. If sailors end up trapped underwater, they'll have 10 to 15 breaths to cut their way out from beneath the netted trampoline that spans the twin hulls.

"We have to plan for the worst," Spithill said. Still, "I think the boat has to be a challenge. It needs to have all the horsepower and risk. If you can only race to the top of first gear, it's boring. You need to be pushed."

He was pushing the limits a month ago in 30-knot winds clashing with the strongest ebb tide of the year. No one was injured when the boat pitch-poled end over end. But the rigid wing became a battering ram on the helpless hulls as it was flushed through the rough waters of the Golden Gate and then collapsed. Pieces of the wing are still washing up at beaches.

Spithill received a call from Ellison, his billionaire boss who founded Oracle, the next morning. 'Champions get through this. I have no doubt you'll get through it,' " Spithill recalls Ellison saying. "It's what I needed," Spithill said, "that outlook and attitude."

But the capsize spooked competitors. So far, Team New Zealand has had little trouble navigating its AC72 in strong winds, but when it heard the news of the capsize while out sailing off the New Zealand coast, it immediately "buttoned back," said Richard Gladwell, who covers the team for in Auckland.

When Sweden's Artemis Racing launched its 72-footer out of Alameda last week in similar tidal conditions, "we didn't go anywhere near that part of the bay," said CEO Paul Cayard.

There is no fatal flaw to the AC72, Barclay said. But he acknowledges that "decisions were made early to make these boats exciting," including choosing a larger, faster 38-meter wing sail over a slower 32-meter one.

Cayard is already questioning the wisdom of that decision: "We would have been better off with a small wing."

The America's Cup has always been as much a test of sailing skills as a design competition -- and the history of the Cup is littered with examples of teams pushing the limit. . In 1995, One Australia cracked like an egg during a challenger series and sank in seconds.

"If nobody takes risks there will be no progress. Howard Hughes did that. So did Boeing," said Dirk Kramers, Oracle's chief engineer who led the design of the AC72. "Whatever lessons are learned from one cycle will be applied to the other. That's what's kept this game alive for 100-and-some-odd years."

America's Cup Capsize

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at ___

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