The Fastest Racing Yacht Ever?

BMW Oracle Racing's 90-foot trimaran goes through sea trials off Anacortes, Wash., on March 9, 2008. It has a mast as tall as a 16-story building and a mainsail twice as big as a 747's wing.
AP/BMW Oracle, Gilles Martin-Raget
A controversial new breed of yachtsman is fighting both on the seas and in the courts to win the America's Cup, whose trophy was named for the legendary yacht that won a famous race back in 1851. Jerry Bowen takes us on a high-speed ride on a high-tech yacht in pursuit of bringing the cup back to America.

The America's Cup is not for the meek or humble. It's a high-stakes, high seas race that requires big money, and even bigger egos.

In the late '70s, media mogul Ted Turner was such a man. He captured the prize with his yacht Courageous, and earned the nickname "Captain Outrageous" for his attitude - and his under the table / over the top drunken celebration.

From its beginning 157 years ago, the race for the cup has always been colorful, if not controversial.

In 1983 when the Americans lost the cup for the first time ever, the Yanks complained that the victorious Australian boat had an advantage, a secret keel that made it faster.

The Aussies kept the cup, and the keel controversy became part of racing lore … the "do anything" attitude to get a competitive edge, says America's Cup historian John Rousmaniere.

And the gentlemen are at it again.

If horse racing is the sport of kings, then this is the sport of billionaires, spending tens of millions of dollars on a fast boat to capture the oldest trophy around, the America's Cup.

A sea battle between land-locked Switzerland, the current holder of the cup with its winning yacht Alinghi and San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, led by an American original who desperately wants the cup back.

His name is Larry Ellison. And Larry Ellison hates to lose:

"Well, we built the sailboat to go as fast as we know how to make a sailboat go," he said, speaking of his hydrofoil trimaran. "She'll go about three times faster than the wind speed."

There has never been anything like it. We took a look during its initial sea trials off of San Diego last month, and its profile is massive.

(AP/BMW Oracle, Gilles Martin-Raget)
The mainsail is twice as large as a Boeing 747 wing … its mast as tall as a 16-story building … the footprint, 90 feet by 90 feet - the size of a baseball infield.

"I've got a Bugatti, which is the fastest car in the world. And it's astonishingly fast, you know? It goes over 250 miles an hour," Ellison said. "But it's nothing like driving this boat."

Ellison can easily afford Bugattis, big boats, and monstrously big houses. He co-founded software giant Oracle and is one of the richest men in the world, worth billions.

His primary home in Northern California cost $200 million. And the boat he's built to challenge the Swiss, a joint project with automaker BMW, has cost upwards of $20 million.

So far.

Jim Spithill is the helmsman, the boat's driver. Bowen asked, does he know yet how fast the boat can go?

"No, we don't," Spithill said. "But certainly up towards, you know, 40 knots. On purpose, we're taking things very slowly and very conservatively. I mean, who knows? We could have a serious crack at a speed record."

To keep the boat light, there is netting instead of flooring. To reduce drag there are three light hulls instead of a traditional single heavy one. But each innovation brings new dangers:

"This boat, you make a mistake, it's catastrophic," Spithill said. "You tip over, you know, people are gonna be killed. It will hurt badly. And that's 'cause of the speed you're traveling and the fact that a boat like this, once it flips over, it's done."

Caution is not thrown to the wind.

For safety, one chase boat follows with a diver and doctor.

There's a second chase boat loaded with computers that monitors the boat's performance like a high speed athlete in training, crunching data sent from the yacht's many sensors.

On this day the wind was 20 knots (about 23 miles an hour). And the yacht was doing 30 knots (nearly 35 miles an hour).

Bowen, in a chase boat with two motors of 600 hp, found that even in a light wind, he could barely keep up.

And there's still another boat in the chase, not for racing but for … spying, carrying men with cameras and binoculars. They're not-so-secret agents working for Alinghi, the Swiss team which holds the cup. They're trying to figure out what makes the American boat sail so fast.

"I can't imagine another sport on the face of the Earth that has that kind of intrigue for a writer like me," said author Joseph Wambaugh, best-known for his mystery and non-fiction books about cops. His 1996 novel "Floaters" is based on an earlier America's Cup race held off San Diego:

"It has spies, it has security, it has espionage," he said.

And it's all part of the game, says Russell Coutts, skipper of the American yacht.

"You know, it's a little bit like a dog fight," he said.

"There's some obvious things that somebody looking from the outside can pick up and, you know, learn. But the reality is there's nothing like sailing the real boat."

And New Zealand native Coutts is considered to be the best. In fact he was the skipper of the Swiss boat when it first won the America's Cup.

And when Coutts and the Swiss had a bitter parting of the ways, Larry Ellison snapped him up for the U.S. team … no surprise to author Wambaugh.

"This is a rich man's game I call a blood sport," he said.

And the blood is being spilled in court.

After Alinghi won the America's Cup for the second straight time in 2007, Ellison sued to become the sole legitimate challenger. The case, being heard in New York State, is on appeal. Arguments are scheduled for early next year

Bowen commented that when Ellison talks about his boat, he has a twinkle in his eye. "I mean, you're having fun."

"It's been a very interesting project to build this thing," Ellison said. "To build something that goes this fast. And it's even more fun to sail. So now, we got to get it out onto the water against Alinghi and see if she is what we think she is, which is the fastest sailboat that's ever been built."

Fastest perhaps … but that doesn't mean it will ever make it to the America's Cup starting line.

Ellison and his novel yacht have just taken a shot across all three of its bows.

The Swiss and at least 16 other nations have announced they're going ahead with the next America's Cup regatta no matter how the American billionaire does in court.

After all his maneuvering and all the money he's spent, Ellison and his fast boat could still end up in the dry dock of nautical history - a very expensive footnote in the story of this long-running gentlemen's sport.

For more info:

  • Alinghi: Defender of the 33rd America's Cup
  • America's Cup
  • BMW Oracle 90
  • Jobson Sailing
  • "A Picture History of the America's Cup" by John Rousmaniere
  • The Seamen's Church Institute