It crashes, it bangs, it sets up a banshee scream of wind noise, and it has an ooh-aah factor which stops old ladies walking their dogs on the Portsmouth shore to watch a weird and wonderful man-made contraption skimming at high speed across the water. They are not watching graceful sailing, they are captivated by the image of paceful sailing. Peaceful it ain’t.
Like magnificent men in their flying machines, these helmet-clad crews have left behind old-style sailboats. Instead, they are sweating profusely inside their body armour while the mental pressure and speed of thought are also running at a frantic pace on the 45-foot, wing-powered, twin-hulled catamarans.
This is the opening event in the America’s Cup World Series, the first competitive toe in the water on the way to the 2017 America’s Cup in Bermuda. It is also the first chance for silver and quadruple Olympic gold medallist Sir Ben Ainslie to see how his year-old Land Rover BAR team are shaping up. This is seen as the best chance Britain has organised in modern times of winning the 164-year-old trophy, with a budget of £80m, including a shiny new headquarters on Portsmouth’s old waterfront about a mile from where this weekend’s racing will take place.
While Sir Ben’s medals were won at an average speed of five to seven miles an hour, now he flies over the water at 45-47mph in boats called AC45Fs. “They are just a bit smaller than the actual boats we are developing for the finals in 2017 but incredible machines; fast, manoeuvrable and, like the catamarans that ended the 2013 edition [of the America’s Cup], capable of foiling.
“We have six teams in action this weekend, featuring some of the world’s top sailors, and I anticipate that this will be some of the best America’s Cup racing we have ever seen. We’ve all been training with each other this week and there has not been much in it.”
After two practice races, the real racing starts on Saturday. “And believe me,” continues Sir Ben, “it will be competitive. Although these World Series races are of limited importance as far as the 35th America’s Cup itself is concerned, they do count towards qualification. And there will be professional pride at stake as well.
“It would be great to start our campaign for the cup on a winning note, but ultimately the result that matters is in 2017. We are showing good progress as a team and everyone is looking forward to getting out racing again.”
His Kiwi crew head, Jono McBeth, highlights the need for good communication when you can hardly hear yourself think; the need for physical fitness that leaves former, more traditional campaigns as different as night and day; and an event which is throwing up “the best fleet for a very long time”. He adds: “We are super-excited about it.”
So this weekend all five challenger teams from Britain, France (Groupama), Sweden (Artemis), New Zealand, and Japan (SoftBank) line up against the defender, the now Bermuda-based Oracle Team USA. In a training session the British boat sailed away from Oracle, Artemis, and SoftBank.
Of course, when it comes to rivalries, Sir Ben does have his abrasive side. When winning his fourth consecutive sailing Olympic gold medal off Weymouth at London 2012, he warned his closest rival, Denmark’s Jonas Hogh-Christensen: “You don’t want to make me angry.” The following year Sir Ben replaced John Kostecki as tactician on the defending American team Oracle USA. Deep in the doo-doo in San Francisco, the Jimmy Spithill-skippered boat came from 1-8 down in a first-to-nine-wins match against Emirates Team New Zealand to prevail 9-8. Some in the British media gave the victory to Sir Ben. A couple of design boffins called Scott Ferguson and Paul Bieker were closely involved in the performance improvement.
Now Spithill and Sir Ben are rivals and the mind games have begun. Spithill, who has also been involved in a long-running campaign by Oracle to destabilise Emirates Team New Zealand, of which Sir Ben was once a member, dismisses him as “a typical English gentleman ashore”, who switches to being aggressive on the water, but whose real talent lies in being a singlehanded sailor.
Sir Ben can afford to shrug off any mild sledging from an Australian well known for his punchy attitude, though he takes no nonsense from anybody when the racing is on.
This event is expected to be watched by more than half a million people over the four days, many paying for privileged viewpoint tickets, others making for the free fanzones.
There are two more world series events this year, in Gothenburg and Bermuda. Next year’s programme has yet to be announced but Portsmouth will feature again. By then, Sir Ben will have a better idea of which way the wind is blowing for his America’s Cup dream.Reuse content