Sports
4:13 pm
Tue June 26, 2012

Ready, Set, Sail: America's Cup Back In Rhode Island

Originally published on Tue June 26, 2012 8:06 pm

An America's Cup sailing event is being held to Newport, R.I., for the first time in 29 years. Sailors began arriving in Newport last week for the final leg of the America's Cup World Series regatta, which has been held at stops all across the world to gin up excitement for the official America's Cup next year in San Francisco.

No longer the sleepy, tactical event of old, the race now features a revolutionary new boat — the AC45 catamaran, made of carbon fiber and powered by a giant vertical wing. The high-tech boats are smaller versions of the vessels that sailors will be skippering in next year's big race.

"The boats are relentless," says Australian sailor James Spithill, who races for Oracle Team USA. "They are the most physical thing we've ever sailed and the most exciting thing we've ever sailed, and then probably the most demanding."

Spithill, also known as "James Pitbull," was a childhood boxer from Australia who left the ring for the sea. The youngest man ever to win the America's Cup, Spithill arrived in Newport skippering a class boat that's reinventing the game.

'Something That They've Never Seen Before'

These catamarans have also piqued the interest of Newport's residents. Even though this week's regatta is not the finals, Brad Read, chairman of the local host committee, says that with the right sailing conditions, the event just might knock the Topsiders off the locals.

"I'm really hoping it's windy because the people are going to just see something that they've never seen before," Read says.

Newport resident Halsey Herreshoff is excited to show off his backyard to a new generation of international sailors. Though their name is often mispronounced, the Herreshoffs are like royalty in sailing. Herreshoff's grandfather designed and built the first catamaran back in the 1870s.

Halsey Herreshoff has sailed all across the world from the Mediterranean to the Baltic, but he says, "I come back here, and I look out at my window and I see Narragansett Bay, and I think to myself, 'Yeah, those places were all great, but this is the best.' "

Like NASCAR On Water

Sailors like Spithill want to show people that sailboat racing has moved past the days of Ted Turner in a blazer. The regatta also allows sailors to get comfy with the high-tech craft because, as Spithill says, they're dangerous.

On a recent ride, the boat kicked up to 24 knots or so on Narragansett Bay. One hull lifted out of the water, and Spithill and his Oracle teammates leaned their bodies over its side. The boat balanced at a 40-degree angle, slicing through waters crowded with pleasure boats.

Unlike in the past, this new breed of sailing does not permit dead weight. Navigators, tacticians and other non-athletes can no longer just sit onboard during races. "If you can't put some serious horsepower into the boat, the guys [onboard] aren't going to carry you around," Spithill says.

Still, Spithill hopes the new boats will increase the sport's popularity. He wants people to view sailboat racing like NASCAR on the water. And as he threads his racing machine through waters off Newport, leaving the pleasure boats in his wake, you can't help but think he might get his wish. As every NASCAR fan knows, speed sells.

Copyright 2013 Rhode Island Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.ripr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

America's Cup sailing has returned to an old New England venue with a brand-new event. Newport, Rhode Island, is hosting the America's Cup World Series this week. This is a new off-year competition, and the boats are revolutionary.

Bradley Campbell of Rhode Island Public Radio takes a ride with one of the top young sailors in the world.

BRADLEY CAMPBELL, BYLINE: They call him the pitbull. He was a childhood boxer from Australia who left the ring for the sea. His name is Jimmy Spithill. He races for Team Oracle. He's the youngest man ever to win the America's Cup, and he arrived in Newport skippering a class boat that's reinventing the game.

JIMMY SPITHILL: The boats are relentless. They are the most physical thing we've ever sailed and the most exciting thing we've ever sailed and then probably the most demanding.

CAMPBELL: The boats are high-tech catamarans called AC45s. They're made of carbon fiber and powered by a giant vertical wing. They're smaller versions of the vessels that the sailors will be skippering in the official America's Cup next year in San Francisco. And they arrived in Newport for the final leg of the World Series Regatta. It's been held at stops all across the world to gin up excitement for the big race. Sailors like Spithill want to show people that sailboat racing has moved past the days of Ted Turner in a blazer, and the series also allows sailors to get comfy with the high-tech craft because, as Spithill says, they're dangerous.

SPITHILL: These things, you get rewarded for pushing hard. You push too hard, you tip over, and you crash.

CAMPBELL: So as you can imagine, I was nervous when Team Oracle invited me to come aboard the craft and hang off the back end.

SPITHILL: There's almost no directions given. Everyone knows exactly what they're doing at the right time, in some ways, just like a very, very intricate dance.

CAMPBELL: The boat kicked up to 24 knots or so, and it became too windy to record. One hull lifted out of the water, and the sailors of Team Oracle leaned their bodies over the side. We balanced at a 40-degree angle, slicing through the waters crowded with pleasure boats. These catamarans are what have the city of Newport excited. And even though this isn't the America's Cup, the chairman of the local host committee, Brad Read, says that with the right sailing conditions this week, the event just might knock the Top-Siders off the locals.

BRAD READ: I'm really hoping it's windy because the people are going to just see something that they've never seen before.

CAMPBELL: One local excited to show off his backyard to a new generation of international sailors is Halsey Herreshoff. Though their name is often mispronounced, the Herreshoffs are like royalty in sailing. Halsey's grandfather designed and built the first catamaran back in the 1870s, and Halsey Herreshoff has sailed all across the world from the Mediterranean to the Baltic.

HALSEY HERRESHOFF: And then I come back here, and I look out at my window, and I see Narragansett Bay, and I think to myself, yeah, those places were all great, but this is the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)

CAMPBELL: Back in Narragansett Bay, Team Oracle and Jimmy Spithill passed me off to a tender after a short ride. The team had work to do, and this new breed of sailing doesn't permit deadweight.

SPITHILL: In the past, you carried guys on board that didn't have to do anything physically: navigator or tactician. And, frankly, a few of them didn't really look like athletes. Now, you don't get carried on these boats. If you can't put in some serious horsepower into the boat, the guys ain't going to carry you around.

CAMPBELL: Spithill hopes the new boats will grow the sport. He wants people to view it like NASCAR on the water. And as he threads his racing machine through the waters off Newport, leaving the pleasure boats in his wake, you can't help but think that he might get his wish because as every NASCAR fan knows, speed sells. For NPR News, I'm Bradley Campbell in Providence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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