Monday morning, we finally got to see the America's Cup we had all expected. Standing at the back of pier on the San Francisco waterfront, the members of the press were introduced to the ten teams from eight countries that will be competing next month to win the Cup. Groups representing Australia, Germany, France, Portugal and Switzerland were there in their gear, ready to sail. I for one cannot wait for them to hit the water and battle it out in their high-tech catamarans for the America's Cup.
Well, not THAT America's Cup. The event this morning was for the Red Bull Youth America's Cup, the league of younger sailors who will likely race with the big boys in the next America's Cup. Think of it as the junior league to The Cup. They "only" sail on 45-foot catamarans, which makes the proposition of entering a team less costly and results in more participation. There's no doubt that the cost of the 72-foot spaceships being used in this year's America's Cup have caused teams to stay away. Remember that the Bay Area Council estimated that 15 teams would participate in this year's Cup, and it has turned out to be four.
The Red Bull Youth America's Cup has no such limitation, and consequently has the international parade of boats that organizers hoped for the America's Cup.
The Red Bull sailors are a different breed from America's Cup crews. Looking around the room, I was struck by how young they all looked. After knocking around with the Cup crews this year, by comparison these guys looked like they had just wandered over from the local high school. As the teams sat together and listened to the Red Bull race directors walk them through their 45-foot catamarans and what to expect, they each had that combination of bravado and uncertainty. Race director Hans-Peter Steinacher, almost jokingly added that the crews should take it easy on the first day, but I am sure some of them were excitedly playing images in their heads of the multiple crashes and flips during last year's World Series when the America's Cup teams were sailing on the 45s
These sailors may ultimately be the greatest beneficiaries of this year's plans to make the America's Cup into a bona fide sport. As long as there is a consistent path from the Red Bull Youth America's Cup (where the crews are vying to be called up to the "big leagues") through the America's Cup World Series (where actual America's Cup teams practice racing in the offseason) and then ultimately the America's Cup itself, these kids will experience something that, dare I say, almost looks like a league.
I cornered the lads from Objective, the Australian contender, who talk about the 72-foot Cup catamarans with an obvious glee. They all wanted to do the 45s because, according to the Australians, "they are the world's second coolest boats behind the 72s, and that is what we are aiming for at the end."
And this is really the point, to take an intermittent event and turn it into something stable that fans and crew can get behind. According to one of the young Australians, "everyone is pretty excited about the Youth America's Cup, and what it could turn into." This is echoed by the equally bright-eyed contenders from USA45, who are affiliated with Oracle Team USA. About the 45s, said one, "There is no other boat like them, and they are really rewarding when you are going 25-30 knots downwind, and there are not many boats that you can do that on."
Steinacher is creating, in essence, a race series that prepares young crews for the big boats." When we put the whole thing together with Red Bull, we were able to get these great boats at the end, said Steinacher. "The Red Bull America's Cup is a really good way for crews to start with the wing." The "wing" of course, being the hard main sail on the 72 that literally resembles a huge airplane wing, but on the 45 is more manageable.
The second part of the series was to make sure that the races were really about the sailors, so the Red Bull series mandates that all teams race on identical 45-foot catamarans. Using smaller, standardized boats dramatically decreased the cost and effort to move the vessels, and also decreased the money required to participate. "What was really important to me was that the boats were nearly one design, because the young people, you can't make them develop things; this is out of their financial possibility," explained Steinacher. "We wanted to make things as simple as possible for them."
The Red Bull Youth America's Cup will be more than just a glimpse of the future of the sport as a series of races that begin with the Red Bull Cup and end with the America's Cup, it will show us what an America's Cup can be when the barriers to participation are lowered - as America's Cup organizers hope to do in the future with smaller boats and league-wide efficiencies. Most importantly, it will showcase the young sailors that will be tomorrow's grizzled veterans.
I look across the room at the Artemis Racing/Swedish Youth Challenge team and see them sitting quietly, saddened by their team's losses. They look a little like a AAA baseball team that knows the "big club" just got eliminated from the playoffs. But they are here, and maybe here to stay. And that's why I'll be watching when the Red Bull Cup races begin in September.