After months of setbacks, the high-speed 72-foot catamarans will finally hit the water for America's Cup competition this week, kicking off the much-anticipated summer of racing on The City's northern waterfront.
Before Oracle Team USA begins its defense of the most prestigious trophy in sailing, Emirates Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa Challenge (Italy) and Artemis Racing (Sweden) will square off in the Louis Vuitton Cup, which is slated to start Saturday, July 7, to determine the home team's challenger in the 34th America's Cup.
"The tension, the interest, grows through the Vuitton Cup until it peaks at the America's Cup in September," America's Cup CEO Stephen Barclay said. "The racing builds to a crescendo."
The first month of competition will be a round-robin format between the three challengers, with each team racing in 10 match races. The 11-man team that collects the most points will get the option of advancing to the best-of-13 Vuitton Cup finals (Aug. 17 to Aug. 30) or facing the competitor of their choice in the semifinals (Aug. 6 to Aug. 15).
"If you believe you stand a better chance of beating your competitor by getting to them early, you might decide to take them on in the semifinals if you win the preliminary round," Barclay said.
Initially, as many as 12 teams were expected to participate in the Vuitton Cup, but several prospective competitors dropped out because of the high costs of mounting a legitimate challenge — in the ballpark of $100 million — in the new era of 72-foot catamarans.
The event took a severe blow in early May when Artemis Racing capsized its boat, leading to the death of two-time Olympic medalist Andrew "Bart" Simpson. Artemis won't be ready to compete when races start Saturday, so teams scheduled to face the Swedes can earn points by simply showing up and sailing through the course.
Barclay said Artemis will be on the water early in the month and if winds are light, it could join the competition before the semifinals.
"They want to fine-tune the boat in light to moderate winds," he said.
The America's Cup is facing criticism for choosing the high-risk craft that can reach speeds of up to 50 mph over the 45-foot catamarans used in the America's Cup World Series last fall, which may have attracted more competitors. But Barclay defended the decision, claiming the objective of the contest is to feature "the best sailors in the fastest boats."
"That's what we're trying to create — a competition with the fastest boats," he said.
In the wake of the Simpson tragedy, Regatta Director Iain Murray issued 37 recommendations to increase safety in America's Cup races. The recommendations include reducing the number of racing days in the Vuitton Cup preliminaries from 21 to 15, adding time for boat maintenance, lowering the maximum wind speeds from 25 to 20 knots for the Vuitton Cup and 33 to 23 knots for the America's Cup, and requiring things such as helmets, buoyancy aids and crew-locator devices.
But as of Friday, the four teams competing for the Cup had not reached an agreement on the recommendations, threatening the Vuitton Cup's Saturday start date. The sticking point concerned elevators, little wings that fit on the bottom of the catamaran's rudders to help lift the boats out of the water. Murray wanted the elevators to be bigger and two teams objected, with Luna Rossa threatening legal action if the recommendation was adopted.
"A couple of the teams don't agree with it. They believe that decision will give another team an advantage," Barclay said.
The event's CEO said the teams are jockeying for position and the dispute will not delay the kickoff of the Vuitton Cup.
"I'm not concerned at all," he said. "I'm in the middle of it and I can see what's going on."
Despite the setbacks to the Vuitton Cup, Barclay said the 34th America's Cup on The City's waterfront still promises to be the "best ever."
"Nobody remembers the undercard," he said.
SKIPPER: Iain Percy
ABOUT: The Swedish syndicate will need to pull off a stirring comeback to qualify for the 34th America's Cup this summer. Artemis Racing is not only suffering through the tragic loss of crew member Andrew "Bart" Simpson, but it's scrambling to launch its new AC72 after destroying its first boat when it capsized on May 9. The team is hoping to be on the water by early July and joining the competition by the end of the month. Artemis Racing is led by CEO Paul Cayard, who's won seven sailing world championships, competed in six America's Cup and is a member of the Sailing World Hall of Fame.
Emirates Team New Zealand
COUNTRY: New Zealand
SKIPPER: Dean Barker
ABOUT: Emirates Team New Zealand is the only two-time champion in this year's competition. The team won its first America's Cup in 1995 beating Team Dennis Connor off San Diego and successfully defended the title in 2000, knocking off Italy's Prada Challenge. The New Zealand team's eight-year reign ended in 2003 when Swiss-based Alinghi won its first of two Cups. The Kiwis are looking to establish themselves as a legitimate threat in the catamaran era this year after proving to be one of the world's top monohull teams for more than 15 years.
Luna Rossa Challenge
SKIPPER: Massimiliano Sirena
ABOUT: Luna Rossa is the Cleveland Browns of the 34th America's Cup. The team has competed for the America's Cup four times since its founding in 1997, advancing to the finals on only one occasion (2000). The Italian team was the last to enter this year's competition and, thus, inked a deal with Emirates Team New Zealand to share information on the design of their AC72 catamarans. With Sirena at the helm, the team is looking to finally get over the hump in the new era of multihulls on the San Francisco Bay.