In the open water, as crew members lift the forward sail and spin their winches, the boat begins to accelerate quickly. As it turns across the wind, the hulls rise about four feet out of the water — what sailors call “flying.”
The vessel is supported by just three small hydrofoils that extend from the hulls into the water. The cutting-edge design of 17 and its three rivals from Italy, New Zealand and Sweden — championed by Ellison — makes them capable of speeds of 46 miles per hour — the fastest boats ever to race in the 161-year-old America’s Cup. That’s faster than vehicles are allowed to travel on the nearby Golden Gate Bridge that spans the bay.
These cats are also among the most perilous boats ever to race in the America’s Cup, says Cup historian John Rousmaniere, who has written books on sailing.
On May 9, the 72-foot cat from Sweden’s Artemis Racing was moving at high speeds when it nose-dived during a practice run, flipping over and breaking into pieces. Briton Andrew Simpson, 36, a gold medalist in the 2008 Olympics, was trapped under the wreckage and died.
“When they go from 40 to zero, you get flung off like a little bug from the top hull, not knowing what you’re going to crash into,” says Randy Smyth, a Cup champion in 1988. “But the America’s Cup has always been run by billionaires, and those people don’t think small.”
The 34th America’s Cup is Larry Ellison’s event. Ellison, 68, won the last Cup in 2010, and as champ, he has the most say in determining the boat design and rules for the next competition. The entrepreneur has brought his money, tech savvy and showmanship to this year’s Cup, the first to be broadcast on U.S. network television since 1992.
A driving ambition
Ellison started Oracle in 1977 and is now worth about $37.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Over three years, Oracle Team USA and its three challengers will probably spend more than $100 million each on their boats, crew, facilities and support staff, says Gary Jobson, a sailing analyst for NBC who won the Cup in 1977. The catamarans alone cost about $8 million each to build.
These ultrafast vessels are the key to Ellison’s ambition to transform the event from a race for the sailing cognoscenti into a televised sporting spectacle that’s as thrilling to watch as Formula One auto racing.
The software titan’s team has jettisoned the plodding monohulls used in most prior Cups. Their top speed in the 2007 competition was about 20 mph. Ellison’s zippy boats can quickly pass one another like racehorses.