When I hear people wonder aloud why the America's Cup is being sailed in high tech catamarans this year, this quote from Artemis Racing's Paul Cayard really sums it up for me. "That's the stigma that the America's Cup had: the boats went slowly and there was one long race a day. And you get up and take a shower and get lunch and come back and the boats were pretty much in the same place, and that was peoples' thoughts about sailing."
Mind you, if anyone was going to stick their heels in and bark about the move to these boats, it would be me, the veteran monohull sailor. I have been competing on the bay for decades, bouncing around on everything from Santana 35s to Express 37s. I have done bow on small Knarrs and trimmed main on a one tonner with a French owner I could barely understand. (No seriously, I could barely understand a word from the guy, making for some truly heroic last second mark roundings.)
The moment I realized the Cup was onto something was when my 10-year-old son stood under the 72-foot monster from Artemis Racing and excitedly blurted out, "it looks like a star fighter!"
The Cup has posters hanging around town proclaiming "The best sailors, the fastest boats." That's great for a marketing campaign, but what my son was expressing was something more than that: Wonder. That's what pulled many of us into sailing -- more than just the competitive side. Sailing is a devious gremlin of a sport, one where you are dueling with Mother Nature as much as you are fighting the boat next to you. You watch a furrowed black patch on the water move swiftly towards your boat, knowing that it signals a blast of wind. And everyone around you nervously grabs winches, closes their grips on lines, and holds their breath as it rumbles in. In that moment, there is fear and electricity and life. And there is also wonder in this sport, moments of beauty, of sunrises over endless seas, of welcoming shores rising out of the fog.
For me, the America's Cup was where the wonder and the magic of sailing lived. Ridiculously romantic? Probably, but romance is also part of the Cup. Last second wins, tragic losses, enough stories of hopes and dreams shattered against a silver auld mug to tell a thousand stories. And those stories are all part of why The Cup holds a special place for all us sailors.
And then something strange happened. It seemed that The Cup became about outliers, one-off races between strange and often wildly different boats. Where once there were seven and eight syndicates, now there were two syndicates fighting on the water and in courtrooms on land. Everyone lost interest. Hell, even I lost interest, as the pinnacle of our sport became a strange circus act. Worst of all, the wonder was gone. Something had disappeared -- a pulling at the gut I didn't start feeling again until this year.
And yes, it was those 72 foot catamarans that brought it back. All the magic, all the wonder of the Cup is suddenly right at the shore, so everyone else can see what we sailors have always known about this sport. As Oracle's Russell Coutts put it, "We wanted to race this close to shore, and these don't have the deep keels, we can launch these in really shallow waters. And we wanted boats that can race in all conditions; to a non-sailor, they used to look at this on television and wonder what's going on... there's no action!"
In other words, people will get to really see what The Cup is all about. These 72-foot beasts, for all their flaws, have magic about them. As I stood under Artemis' boat, I could not believe its size. I had seen the graphics and watched the videos on YouTube, but nothing prepared me for the scale. Walking past the main wing on the shop floor was like walking down a city block. Giant ovens line the back wall of the building, ready to bake the massive carbon fiber components that make up the boat. An apartment-size raised floor in the middle of all this creates enough floor space to lay out the sails that work with that main wing to drive these boats to unbelievable speeds.
The America's Cup once again has the best boats in the world, and watching two of these mega-cats converging on the first mark like Formula One cars charging into the first turn will be like nothing anyone has ever seen. And there will be a little sadness too, as these incredible machines rocket down the cityfront, attempting to wrest the Cup away from San Francisco. Sadness, because in all likelihood, we will never pass this way again.
The combination of Europe's fiscal realities, the need to have more syndicates in future Cup races, and the tragic death of Andrew "Bart" Simpson means that we will likely be the first and last Cup audience to see these 72 foot catamarans in action. Future races will use smaller catamarans, maybe even the 45 foot ones that were featured last year. But for one summer, before the fog envelopes The City, before the Bay calms and we head into winter, we will see and feel the wonder.