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

By NPR's Bradley Campbell

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June 29, 2012
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The Oracle Racing AC45 catamaran competes in the America's Cup World Series in Cascais, Portugal in August 2011. The Oracle Team USA sailors are also competing in the final leg of this year's regatta in Newport, R.I. (Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images)

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 2012 Rhode Island Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.ripr.org/.

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