America’s Cup Racing Is the Most Extreme Sport on Earth

The pastime of billionaires? Sure. But it’s also some of the most intense action anywhere, anytime.

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You know what’s more baffling than a sailboat that goes three times the speed of the wind? A sailboat that does it without actually touching the water.

I don’t even know what to call the extraordinary race boats the America’s Cup is fielding. The Land Rover BAR AC45 I was invited to join is a 45-foot catamaran with a towering carbon-fiber wing for a sail and thin hydrofoils that lift the boat out of the water like a weapons-grade angel. Once aloft, it gives off a godly harmonic and rockets across Bermuda’s Great Sound at 35 knots—in 15 knots of wind.

This is a racing vehicle at its most extreme. Formula 1 still fields the fastest cars on the road, and it bills itself as the “pinnacle of racing.” But Bernie and the billionaires have been tweaking the same fundamental design for many years—the aerodynamics, tires and materials change by increments, and the engines (they’re called power units now) are dull hybrid contraptions that nod disingenuously to environmentalism. But the racing is a staid and mostly processional affair. Mercedes-AMG wins races; Ferrari wins hearts; and a smattering of other guys fill in the back of the field.

Harry Kenney-Herbert

Not so America’s Cup. With the introduction of foiling catamarans in the 2013 series in San Francisco, everything about sailboat racing changed. The stakes are high (one crewman was killed during early races), and the speed achieved and platform maneuverability are breathtaking. Oracle Team USA, with Aussie skipper Jimmy Spithill and the heroic Brit Sir Ben Ainslie as tactician, won seven consecutive do-or-die races in a row to steal the Cup from the Kiwis’ hands. It defied logic.

The America’s Cup series is coming back, this time to Bermuda in 2017. Land Rover has signed on as title sponsor of Sir Ben’s new race team, joining director Martin Whitmarsh, who for the past 35 years has run F1 teams. Why Land Rover? Why not? Its parent company, Jaguar Land Rover, is responsible for two of the best cars of the decade in the Jaguar F-Type and the Range Rover Sport. It’s also interested in adventure, extreme conditions and the customer demographic that likes to haul boats on trailers. Why Martin Whitmarsh? Because the man likes speed.

Harry Kenney-Herbert

One weekend in October, at the end of the America’s Cup World Series, I was invited to take the 6th-man position on Land Rover’s AC45, which is a slightly smaller version of the 50-footer that’ll be used in 2017. Sitting in the 6th-man position means I get to occupy a tiny patch of netting on the transom, aft of Sir Ben’s tiller handle. I’m told not to move, and it’s suggested kindly that I not say anything at all. The deck of an America’s Cup boat is among the most dangerous, don’t-you-bullshit-me environments in any sport.

“Just stay still,” jokes Sir Ben in the minutes before the start of the first race. “And no one gets hurt. Probably.”

Harry Kenney-Herbert
Harry Kenney-Herbert
Harry Kenney-Herbert
Harry Kenney-Herbert

Earlier that morning, Whitmarsh is reclining in the den of the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club watching the Rugby World Cup on a flat-screen TV. Ireland is losing. “I’m not a sailor,” he says. “I know next to nothing about it. But I know what extraordinary engineering and speed look like. This is it. These boys have found the edge.”

You may know Whitmarsh from his previous life in F1, where he spent two decades as CEO and team principal of McLaren’s Formula 1 team. He worked with Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, et al., and their respective crews. Today, F1 is a semi-fond memory. His fascination now is with the AC45. “I’ve been in aerodynamics my whole life,” he says. “But this is fantastic. You’re looking up at an enormous wing, and all that force is reacting on this tiny thing in the water. It’s counterintuitive. In the AC50s you’ll be going three times the speed of the wind. Well, how can you go faster than the wind? It’s just physics. But it’s splendid physics. These boats are utterly improbable—literally tons of side-load beneath tons of vertical load, all resting on a thin dagger-board and rudder.”

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He sips an ice water. With his careful white stubble and piercing blue eyes, he looks very much like a housetrained Rutger Hauer.

“I’ve been around racing for 35 years,” he says. “I’m a student of team dynamics. On a Formula 1 team, the predominant dynamics are cross-garage. Every racing driver in the world who’s honest, the driver he wants to beat the most is his teammate. Because if he’s beaten by someone else, he can ascribe that to they got better tactics, a faster car, whatever. Get beaten by a teammate, he’s simply quicker than you.”

Whitmarsh is much more interested in the way America’s Cup teams work together, which resembles an F1 pit crew. “What you’re seeing on these AC45 platforms is an extremely intricate dance. You’ve got the individual talents of the helmsman, the tactician, the wing trimmer and the grinders and the trimmers. If they can’t choreograph every maneuver, they can’t win. The timing is crucial, communication is crucial. When you’re up foiling, moving from one foil to another without touching the water, that has to be the most difficult task in racing I’ve ever witnessed.”

I can’t argue with that. On the Great Sound later that morning, there are 1,500 spectator boats in formation around the mile-long racecourse. Wearing body armor and a helmet, I watch Sir Ben and his four-man crew almost wordlessly winch and muscle this massive boat (which, like all of Sir Ben’s boats, is named “Rita”) like a matchbox car on a kitchen floor. In the countdown before the first start, we weave through the confusion of six competitors (including ex-teammate Jimmy Spithill’s Oracle), jockeying dangerously close to one another for the perfect starting position.

In the 15-knot wind, the rigid wing groans with each trim, Rita’s motion is violent and smooth, nimble and fast as hell. The starting horn sounds, we rise up on the foils and shoot downwind like vibrating angels aloft. This, race fans, is racing.