Hubert Burda Media

America’s Grandest Battle

The America’s Cup is the holy grail of all sailing regattas. To win, one needs to first clinch the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Our second night in San Francisco — July 5 — and already, we were whisked off in a grand fleet of limousines to attend an opening party.
Thing is, we had no idea where we were headed. Our chauffeurs were contractually bound to secrecy and could not reveal the party venue.
After exiting northwest of the city, winding roads ensued and as the sun began to set, the car turned onto a hiking trail, which the locals name “Land’s End”, a windswept rocky shoreline at the mouth of the Golden Gate.
And there, looming right ahead of us, was the regal California Palace of the Legion of Honor, built in the neoclassical styles of Greek temples.
The fine arts museum, which also houses one of the world’s The Thinker sculptures by Auguste Rodin, was transformed into a party space and the galleries vibrated with dance music. Near us, a group of young American men, all suited up in their tuxedoes, jiggled to the vinyl beats of DJ Chris Clouse, who was spinning a techno remix of Psy’s “Gangham Style”.
Hang on, weren’t those dancing dudes hard-racing sailors from Team Oracle? And wasn’t that Iain Percy in another corner? And John Bertrand with Bruno Troublé over there? These are the rockstars of competitive sailing.
As dry as we were supposed to be wet with waves and winds — hard to believe and we don’t blame you — but truly, we were right at the calm before the storm that was the 30th Louis Vuitton Cup, a regatta as glamorous and moneyed as it is storied and controversial.
Convivial as it might have been, the night’s activities seemed to evaporate like sea spray vanishing into the day’s morning sun.
The meat of the action was the America’s Cup Park, right at The Embarcadero, a waterfront facing, on one side, the infamous Alcatraz and on the other, Bay Bridge. The activities — spectator and souvenir stands, pop-up cafes, sport bars, private clubs and so on — stretched from piers numbering into the 20s.
Days earlier, at the opening ceremony attended by an 8,000-strong audience, helmsman-cum-skipper Jimmy Spithill of defending champion Team Oracle USA, had said: “Winning has been amazing.”
“But the taste of champagne pouring from the Cup (it’s a tradition for the champion to drink from it) is even more amazing, let me tell you that. I’ll like to taste it again.”
Spithill’s thirst would have to wait another 10 weeks before it could be quenched. Regatta rules dictate that any racing team wanting to compete with the champions must first clinch the LV Cup in order to earn challenger stripes for the Amercia’s Cup (AC). This summer, the challengers hailed from Sweden (Artemis Racing), Italy (Luna Rossa Challenge) and New Zealand (Team Emirates).
As with the Olympics, Super Bowl and Wimbledon, games of such a grand scale cannot be without its as-grand share of drama and controversy. Of the turnout, 15 teams were intended for the starting line, and in the end, (due in large part to the escalating cost of sailing — this year, it costed about US$80 million just to qualify) only three boats remained as challengers. In previous Cups, boats from China, Japan and even Korea were represented.
Even Bruno Troublé, when he found out I was from Singapore, lamented openly: “I wish Singapore, with so many young champions, would be part of the game.”
“Sailing is progressing very quickly in Singapore,” he shared. “The best kids at the moment, the world champions, are from Singapore — all podium positions one, two and three. You can expect those boys to compete in the America’s Cup.”
Second, in the wake of the death of Andrew Simpson this May, an Artemis Racing crew member, some 37 safety recommendations were made by Regatta Director Iain Murray. These were agreed in principle by the four teams, but some were later refuted by Team Emirates and Luna Rossa on the grounds that Murray had exceeded his authority in implementing them.
For the rest of world, as spectators, it is a spectacle packed with style and glamour. Whenever the Italian team appeared in their sleek sail gear tailored to near-perfection by its sponsor Prada, it was a vision made flesh by a fashion-savvy Sea God: Runway form married to navigation function. Meanwhile, watchmakers Omega and TAG Heuer backed Team Emirates and Oracle Team as sponsors respectively.
For sailing enthusiasts, the Cup is the mother of all sailing competitions, hailed as the holy grail of all races. Even Singapore Sailing Federation’s CEO Tan Wearn Haw was in attendance (we missed each other by weeks — I was there for the July round robins, he was there for the finals in September). I had also promised former Olympian medallist sailor Dr Benedict Tan a regatta poster signed by Bruno Troublé and maybe a souvenir tee too.
And finally, for the San Francisco community, it is an occasion. “You know what’s amazing?” Stephen Barclay, the America’s Cup CEO, said to me one night at dinner at The Waiheke Island Yacht Club. “Just two years ago, this [waterfront] was nothing. And then the Cup comes in and — boom! — all these things happen.”
Yes, the throng is definitely in as jolly a mood as Barclay — after all, the Bay Area Council recently estimated the Cup to be worth $902 million in economic value, which includes city rejuvenation work, job generation and of course, tourism revenue. Take, for instance, the spike in Cup-inspired shopping appetites: The San Francisco Neverfull tote (a limited edition version from the Articles de Voyage Neverfull line) — inscribed with “Pier 27/20” — was sold out on opening day. “[The first batch roll-out] was meant to last for a week,” says Cup Director Christine Belanger incredulously. Certainly, with the French House as official organiser, it has leveraged on the opportunity to impress upon visitors the span of its luxuriant universe, from the aforementioned LV Cup sailing apparel line to interiors to a commemorative coffee-table book (Bruno Troublé’s The Louis Vuitton Cup historicises the AC from 1851 to present day).
Even at the Club 72, LV’s VIP lounge at the AC Park that commands a certain presence next to the Cup trophy itself, can be found the brand’s first match-racing chronograph, the Tambour Twin Chrono, launched during the recent Baselworld. This certainly comes in handy for the official timekeeper, as the LV Cup is raced according to a “match” format, which means only two boats can compete at once, each race lasting an approximate 40 scorching minutes.
Which brought us to the race itself.
Finally, we were doing what we flew 10,000 miles from Singapore to San Francisco to do. The first race of the first round robin took place at noon. Apart from the drama, this year’s races had been highly anticipated also because of the advances in sailing technology since the last Cup in 2010.
Sailing fans had been following explanatory YouTube videos circulating even before the event to find out more about the unprecedented use of “hydrofoil” in each boat. It may be the wing sail that harnesses the wind power for water speed but it will be the surfboard-sized carbon-fibre plank which will make it fly. At top speed, the hydrofoil gives unimaginable turbo boost for the catamaran to “lift” off the water on sheer momentum. Without water contact and hence reduced drag on the hull, racers can sail their 72-ft length in a single second (four times faster than that at the last Cup regatta).
As the Aotearoa sailed into sight to the spectators’ cheers, it was a majestic vision of modern engineering: Towering, sleek, lightweight, and so economically structured that viewed straight on, its wing sail appears follicle-thin, almost invisible.
The first LV Cup race of the season initially involved Team Emirates and Luna Rossa. Not surprisingly, given the earlier events, the Italians decided to boycott the race as a sign of protest (Luna Rossa would eventually accede to race days later). By contest rules, the remaining boat still has to race to earn points. So, in a solo effort, the New Zealanders, skippered by Dean Barker, soldiered on.
To follow the action on the water, we climbed onboard the Perini Navi Asahi, a 180-ft sea monster of a mega-sail yacht, forged of macassar, ebony and wenge. No wonder on its luxurious make — its current owner is Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, the fifth richest man in the world, according to Forbes last year.
The 16-nautical-mile race begins below the Golden Gate, passes Alcatraz and ends off at Pier 27/29. From where we were, we could only marvel at how fast the AC72 catamaran appeared to skip over the water; it seemed to fly. But from zoom-ins on the flat-screen TVs on the Asahi, courtesy of a film crew atop a helicopter, one could see the flurry of activity on the Aotearoa, with 11 men — barrel-chested grinders, triggers, wing trims, foredecks, bowmen, helmsmen and so on — whirring from one side of the boat to the other, steering, grinding and powering the boat to achieve speeds of, at one point, up to 42.8 knots an hour (nearly twice the prevailing windspeed).
The New Zealanders touched home at an incredible 46 minutes 27 seconds. There would be four other round robins thereafter, then one semi-final and a final in 10 weeks, before podium glory was earned. Later in September, they would go on to beat Italy’s Luna Rossa to clinch the 30th Louis Vuitton Cup with a mind-boggling time of 33 minutes 49 seconds.
Suffice to say, it takes a regatta of such vigour and scale to drive sailing technology, which in turn gives new life to the event season after season. It’s the game that drives the industry.
And that — ladies and gentle-yachtsmen — is why we sail.
Team Emirates New Zealand would eventually go on to win the LV Cup and earn challenger stripes against defending champion Team Oracle USA for the 34th America’s Cup. For more details, visit