It's a tale of wind, water and war between two very rich men over one very old prize. When the America's Cup began over a century-and-a-half back, gentlemen in starched collars raced wooden schooners in defense of national pride. These days, it's all about billionaire pride, high-powered lawyers, high-priced sailors of fortune and what could easily be the fastest sailboat ever built.
Meet the BMW Oracle Racing 90 and her crew. It's not the snazziest of boat names. "Sea Monster" would work, or something like "Oceanus." But really, you could call this thing "The Fuzzy Navel" and it would still strike pure awe.
At the waterline, the boat is 90 feet square -- the size of a baseball infield. The mast is taller than the Statue of Liberty. But Kevlar and carbon fiber also make it light and strong enough to push the limits of physics and sail almost three times faster than the wind. Even a mild gust lifts one of its three hulls out of the water…suspending its passengers like spiders on a web in the net that spans between the hulls. The crew wear helmets and life vests to protect them in the event of a crash.
As the boat moves swifly over the water, the craft constantly groans and creaks, a reminder of just how much force is at work. On the day ABC correspondent Bill Weir sailed with the crew, the hull of the boat was absorbing 15 tons of torque. Captain Russell Coutts knew this because the boat is rigged with dozens of computer sensors that beam data to a small monitor he wears on his wrist.
"We're doing 24 [knots]," Coutts notes. "That's pretty fast."
Coutts is the most accomplished competitive sailor alive; the only guy to win an Olympic gold medal and three America's Cups. And even though he helped design this boat, it scares him. And as Coutts and Weir talk, there's a boom and the entire boat shudders. Coutts and the crew run to see what they've hit. It's a seal. "Poor thing probably never heard us coming," says Weir.
But with a machine this powerful…and untested…aquatic speed bumps are just one potential tragedy. "Pitchpoling would be bad," Coutts explains. "Capsizing would be bad. Breaking something would be bad."
"If you flip this thing over, the guy on the high hull, it's like falling off a 10-story building," adds owner Larry Ellison.
Ellison is a self-made software billionaire who's won a lot of regattas, but never the America's Cup. And it chaps him that sailing's top prize resides in the land-locked nation of Switzerland, where a pharmaceutical heir named Ernesto Bertarelli built an all-star team called Allinghi. The Swiss team captured the title in 2007. Ellison and Bertarelli used to be buddies. Not anymore.
According to the age-old rules, the winner of the cup gets to choose the "challenger of record," and the two teams decide how, when, where and what kind of boats they'll race. As soon as the Swiss team won, all the usual powerhouses lined up to challenge…New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain and Ellison's American team. But instead...Bertarelli went with a Spanish yacht club no one had ever heard of.
Says Ellison, "This yacht club had no yacht, no members. And it never held a regatta. Along with the bogus challenger that agreed to this very one-sided rules, where all the umpires on the water work for Ernesto, the jury works for Ernesto. Ernesto can change the rules whenever he wants to without consulting with anybody."
So, Ellison sued, but the New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bertarelli. So Ellison is appealing, and the fate of the Cup is still in the hands of the court.
"It seems a shame to see the legacy of America's Cup being besmirched by a couple of really rich people fighting it out in court for so long," laments Dennis Connor.
Connor knows something about sailing controversy. He used loopholes in the rules to beat New Zealand with a much faster catamaran back in '87.
"In this case Larry Ellison is absolutely right not to back down and just give them their way. He's standing up for 160 years of America's Cup tradition in this case, and I hope he prevails," says Connor.
So what is it the Swiss team is afraid of?
"Well, I think they're afraid of Russell Coutts", says Ellison.
Russell Coutts used to skipper for Bertarelli…and won a Cup for him, until he had a falling out and was fired. Nothing like vengeance to thicken the plot even more. But for now, the world's best sailor can only dream about racing the world's fastest boat for the world's best trophy.