Whether you’re a water baby, couch potato…or spy, the 35th America’s Cup wants to convert you into a fan. And they’ve made it such that you don’t need to know sailing to enjoy the action.
Come to think of it, Queen Victoria, a spectator when the cup was first contested in 1851 at the Isle of Wight, probably wouldn’t even realise the peculiar things racing today in Bermuda’s picturesque Great Sound are boats. Unlike conventional vessels that push through the water, these come with an aircraft-like wing and hydrofoil that enable the boats to lift off and “fly” over the water surface at blistering speeds. By most predictions, it’ll even be the boat that stays up on its hydrofoil, touching water the least, that will eventually claim the America’s Cup (also known as the Auld Mug) later this month.
The embrace of aeronautics isn’t the only thing that’ll pique the curiosity of casual observers of this event. Emirates Team New Zealand has a novel game plan that may well prove to be advantageous. Unlike the five other contesting teams relying on good old arm-cranking to power their boat’s control systems, they’re using pedal power, which, if you think about it, is literally a group of men cycling in a boat.
With the Cup from 1851 donated to its winning yacht club as a challenge trophy between nations for perpetuity, rivalry in the water prevailed. Only four countries have ever brought home the Auld Mug, with the Americans dominating the field for a remarkable 132-year stretch. (For the record, the America’s Cup was named not for the country but for the first victorious vessel, the schooner America, owned by a syndicate of businessmen from New York.)
As it was in the 19th century, the rules favour the incumbent Cup holder (referred to as the Defender), who advantageously prescribes the type of boat and the race zone for when it puts its title back into play. This month, the responsibility falls on Oracle Team USA to defend its title in what is gearing up to be the fastest and fiercest race yet in the most scenic of locales.
“Look around you. What’s not to like?” says Angelo Bonati, CEO of Officine Panerai, with a hand gesturing across the Great Sound. Bordered on three sides by island parishes that look like watercolour paintings come to life and a coral reef that buffers the waves and currents of the Atlantic Ocean, it is a natural harbour where both sky and water are as blue as can be.
A sailor credited with stewarding his brand’s long-term commitment to bolstering the appreciation of classic sailing through the Panerai Classic Yachts Challenge — it enjoys its 13th outing this year — Bonati needed less than two minutes of convincing by Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison to throw his full support behind the America’s Cup. Not only has Panerai stepped in where British watchmaker Bremont left off as official timer, it is also the official watch of two teams: Defending champion Oracle Team USA and first-time challenger Softbank Team Japan.
“Our first point in common is the sea. The second is sailing,” says Bonati, again gesticulating with his hands. This time, his Luminor 1950 Oracle Team USA 3 Days Chrono Flyback Automatic, one of five commemorative limited-edition watches unveiled at this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, catches the afternoon sun. I’m reminded that just as the America’s Cup is a driver of progress in the world of sailing — contesting yachts were the first to introduce machine-woven cotton sails (1851), aluminium in boat building (1895), fibreglass (1987) and not to mention the new wingsails — Panerai too started its journey in the water, innovating a means for time to be read instantly at great depths and poor visibility with the Radiomir.
“Both Panerai and the America’s Cup have a long heritage and a set of values they subscribe to, namely [the commitment] to innovation, technology and new materials. That’s why the combination of the brands is perfect,” he goes on.
It is at his invite that we’re gathered in our Gore-Tex weatherproof jackets in late March, for a thrilling training session with Oracle Team USA in the Great Sound. Of course, we don’t get to go on the prized six-manned, America’s Cup Class (ACC) foiling catamaran, but we do tail it at speed in a chase boat. With little concept of personal space (or fear of collision), our captain gets us so close to the race boat that when the sailors execute a foiling gybe, we collectively hold our breaths as we watch the choreography before us. If the boat drops, lifts or turns sideways as the crew make their mad dash across the trampoline, it could easily be a case of man-over-board.
The daredevilish antics aren’t confined to those sailing the ACC boats. In front of us, behind, and to the side, there are more chase boats going at full speed. Most are support staff gathering and analysing data on the performance of the race boats. But there are others whose primary function is to spy.
“Ninety percent of the day, we’ve got people watching us. Everyone’s trying to figure out what the other teams are doing,” says Andrew Campbell, Oracle Team USA’s tactician, when we gather at the Royal Naval Dockyard. Ordinarily a tourist attraction with shops, eateries, a craft market, museum, and a cruise ship terminal, it currently doubles as the America’s Cup Village.
“You see those other teams going out into the water now? We’ll have a recon boat go out with them. So we know what manoeuvres they’re testing out. We may need to figure out how to do or how to cover them too [when they are executed].”
“In the past, we used to mount full spy operations, spending half our bl**** budget on spying alone!” Ross Blackman, Softbank Team Japan’s commercial director, says with a booming laugh. If anyone needs insider knowledge of America’s Cup history, Blackman is the man to speak to. He’s played a part in all of New Zealand’s campaigns from 1988 until the last America’s Cup, after which he had intended to semi-retire. Instead, the Japanese came calling.
Even Emirates Team New Zealand, which at the point of our visit is the only team yet to arrive in Bermuda, has an eye on the competition here in the Great Sound. Word has it that a French couple takes pictures for them. The only gentlemen’s rule in the sport of espionage is that no photography of an opposition boat may be done within 150m on the water — mainly for safety reasons. But the rule is broken daily, we’re informed.
As stipulated by the rules of the 35th America’s Cup, every ACC boat is built to the same design but with an allowance for each team’s designers and engineers to express a degree of creativity in innovation. So while the hulls and wings are the same, it’s what you don’t see that may give a team the edge (for example, its control systems and the design of the hydrofoils).
“The new boats are more evenly matched and are also far more manoeuvrable, so the actual moves the guys can make during match racing will be better than seen before,” explains Peter Rusch, communications director at Oracle Team USA. “Close racing is good racing. There’s lots of passing and opportunities for passing. It’s not just a parade around the course between one boat that’s a lot faster than the other.”
“In the past, it was sailors who liked to watch the America’s Cup, but what we want to do is reach out to normal people, soccer fans even. We just want to get fans. You don’t have to be a sailor to like these boats. There’s a lot of aspects to it. You may like the risks, the athletic side, the speed, or you might be into technology. These boats provide something for everyone,” says Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill, who knows a thing or two about giving audiences a nail-biting matchup. It was he who in 2013 led his team from 8-1 down to lift the Auld Mug — a feat that remains one of the greatest comebacks in international sport.
Add the fact that Spithill and the Oracle team have used their Defender’s privilege of setting the year’s race zone to eschew home waters for Bermuda, one of the world’s best flat water tracks, and spectators have themselves the ultimate spectacle — one that is even close enough to shore for thousands more to witness from dry land.