x

Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

What makes the America’s Cup sailing competition ‘the Formula One of the sea’

We travel to Bermuda to catch the behind-the-scenes action as the world’s finest sailors prepare for the oldest-ever international sporting trophy.
Oracle Team USA takes its boat onto the water to practice ahead of the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda. Photo by Sam Greenfield
Oracle Team USA takes its boat onto the water to practice ahead of the 35th America's Cup in Bermuda. Photo by Sam Greenfield

Feathery clouds hang above a stretch of aquamarine water, bordered by a hilly island landscape speckled with pastel-coloured houses. There’s a cruise ship, some yachts, a couple of chase boats and some sailboats – but not the typical kind, with soft fabric sails fluttering in the wind. These are professional racing sailboats, with statuesque sails that sport the logos of luxury brands. They are riding the waves off the coast of Bermuda, which is the host of the 35th America’s Cup.

The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy in the world. The first cup was awarded in 1851, when a schooner named America won a race around the Isle of Wight. The races take place, on average, every three or four years, although there is no set schedule. After the Second World War, for example, there was a 21-year hiatus. Recent America’s Cup races have been held in San Diego, Auckland and Valencia, and the last edition of the storied championship took place in San Francisco in 2013. Oracle Team USA emerged victorious, becoming this year’s defenders. As winners, they were given the opportunity to select the venue for the 2017 America’s Cup. While the defenders typically choose a home field for the maritime racetrack, Oracle Team USA settled on Bermuda, a British overseas territory, after considering its landscape and convenient location. “Bermuda is one of the best flatwater racetracks in the world,” the team’s manager, Tom Slingsby, tells me.

But a greater goal of professional sailors is to increase awareness of competitive sailing, which is all too often overshadowed by sports such as football, baseball and basketball, so there was an ulterior motive for choosing Bermuda. Team USA’s skipper and helmsman, Jimmy Spithill, reveals: “It was the perfect time zone for television, in that we could get the American audience and we could get the European audience,” he explains.

Ten white lawn chairs sit on a deck outside Team Oracle USA’s base on Boaz Island, where all the competing America’s Cup teams are stationed. It’s a first sign of the casual, family-style vibe shared by the team, which is made up of about 85 people, from sailors and technicians to boat builders, designers, accountants, chefs and marketing personnel. Oracle Team USA sailors have all relocated to Bermuda – many with their families – and have been entrenched on the island, preparing for the 35th America’s Cup, for the past two years.

Training for the race is mentally draining and fully immersive. When the boats are on the water, they move at an alarmingly fast pace for vessels devoid of engines and batteries. They glide across the choppy waves using foiling techniques that lift them off the water and give them the appearance of being in flight. The longer the boat hulls are kept off the water’s surface, the faster they will sail. Capable of reaching speeds of more than 80 kilometres per hour, the 15-metre-long catamarans are powered by the wind and controlled by a crew of six sailors – so success depends on a combination of teamwork, athletic fitness and problem-solving skills.

Inside the cafeteria, a printout near a coffee machine and Red Bull refrigerator lists upcoming birthdays of team members. But while the vibe is laid-back, these watermen adhere to a rigorous cross-training regimen and strict nutrition plan to keep them in tip-top shape. The maximum average weight per sailor on the race boat is 87.5 kilograms, and the sailors weigh in and out every Monday and Friday to ensure their weight remains constant.

They’re also presented with mental tests, such as maths problems and puzzles, during their physical training, to mimic the fast-paced, pressure-filled environment on the boat. They have to be quick-thinking and nimble, and able to run across a moving trampoline at a speed of 40 kilometres per hour, which is why, over the years, the average age of a competitive sailor has decreased dramatically. Grinders, who generate the hydraulic pressure that’s used to control the boat’s wing panels, will have an average heart rate of 180 to 200 beats per minute while racing – that’s the average maximum heart rate of a 20-year-old.

Large black banners with motivational quotes from famous athletes, such as Muhammad Ali and Ayrton Senna, are posted around the brick-walled gym: one, by American football player Steve Young, reads: “The principle is competing against yourself. It’s about self-improvement; about being better than you were the day before.”

Visitors to the base are strictly prohibited from taking photographs of the race boats, which are kept in warehouse-style garages and are constantly being improved and altered after test-race rounds. Although the boats may look the same to an outsider, the cockpits are all unique, and their designs are kept shrouded in secrecy. When practising on the water, there’s a friendly agreement between the teams that they won’t film or photograph one another within a 150-metre range.

But, as Slingsby explains: “That gets broken daily. Every team does it to each other; we’ve all got our spies.” He points out that in the past 10 minutes, three teams have been sitting in chase boats waiting for Oracle Team USA to get their boat out. “Ninety per cent of the day, every day, we’ve got other teams watching us,” he says. A member of SoftBank Team Japan, meanwhile, tells me of a French couple who live on the island and are paid to send photographs of the Japanese boat to another team.

Grant Simmer, chief operating officer and general manager of Oracle Team USA, has been sailing since he was 7 years old, and has participated in every America’s Cup since the Rhode Island race in 1983. He stresses that although the America’s Cup is a sporting competition, it’s just as much a technological contest. “We’ve got to get the technology right, so that the sailors have the best equipment to go and race with,” he says. “And that’s one of the similarities with Formula One – the best F1 drivers are really good with developing a car and talking to the engineers about how the car feels and what they want to change, and it’s exactly the same in our world.” It’s no coincidence, then, that the brands that sponsor the team, such as BMW, Airbus, Yanmar and Panerai, are world-renowned for their technical expertise.

“America’s Cup is the race – the race of the world. It’s the Formula One of the sea. There is no other sport with the same weight that combines passion and professionalism with adventure and technology,” says Angelo Bonati, chief executive of luxury watch brand Officine Panerai. This is a brand with a very special relationship with the sea – in the late 19th century, it was the official watch supplier to the Regia Marina, or Italian navy, and since, has also supplied watches to the Egyptian navy and professional divers around the world. For the 2017 America’s Cup, Panerai is the official watch for two competing teams: Oracle Team USA and SoftBank Team Japan.

To mark this relationship, Panerai unveiled a series of limited-edition America’s Cup watches at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie watch show in January, all modelled on the brand’s Luminor timepiece. Sporty and versatile, the black watches feature subtle red and blue touches in stitching details and on minute and second hands. The stainless steel backs are inscribed with Oracle Team USA, SoftBank Team Japan or with the America’s Cup logo.

Dean Barker, skipper and chief executive of SoftBank Team Japan, explains that one of a sailor’s greatest challenges is tight timing. “On the water, it’s all about precision; everything is based on timing. It all comes down to very instinctive split-second decisions,” he says. So, the waterproof features and stopwatch functions of the Officine Panerai watches are more than just appealing add-ons for the sailors; they’re crucial requirements for the sport. “For me, a watch that can work in the heat of battle and work on the shore, and be the same – that’s the ultimate watch,” says Spithill.

On May 26, five challenging teams will start racing against each other, and the victorious team will go on to race Oracle Team USA on June 17. “In the past, sailors would love to watch the America’s Cup, but what we want to do is get normal people to become fans,” says Spithill. “There are a lot of aspects you might like: the risk, the athletic side, the speed, or you might be into technology. You don’t have to be a sailor to like these new boats.”

Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, May 11.

hlodi@thenational.ae