High-Speed Catamaran Races Attract New Thrill-Seeking Crowd

PHOTO: The Oracle Racing Team skippered by James Spithill trains on a AC45 in the San Francisco Bay, Sept. 25, 2012 in San Francisco.
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With a catamaran, one of the most advanced sailing vessels on Earth, it's sailing, but not as we know it.

On these racing boats, which can fly through the water at 50 mph, there is no main sail, but a carbon fiber wing that helps guide them through choppy waters. The sailors are not rich, portly men with one hand on the tiller, but gymed-out beefcakes suited up like football players, and the skippers are lured onto these racing boats by big-money teams with seven-figure salaries, seeking a chance at an old hunk of silver known as the America's Cup.

"It's athletes now," said skipper Jimmy Spithill, "It's not guys putting on blazers and sitting on the side with a gin and tonic."

Spithill, a no-nonsense 33-year-old Aussie yachtsman, is the youngest skipper ever to win the America's Cup. He won it for the United States team in 2010.

Every morning at 7 a.m., Spithill's team is in a hanger on the docks working out.

"It's nonstop, running, grinding, pulling ropes," said crewmember Dirk De Ridder.

Sailing has finally entered the 21st century, fueled by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's billions and a band of young, brash athletes. The sport is now chasing a new group of fans -- often, people who flock to the likes of NASCAR races.

"You can capsize these boats, you can crash them hard," Spithill said. "These boats reward pushing hard. Push too hard: It can be catastrophic."

In October, the crew of Oracle's America's Cup catamaran sailed too close to the wind during a practice run in the San Francisco Bay and the gigantic 72-foot-long champion vessel capsized. No one was seriously hurt, but the wing was damaged.

Spithill has flipped in the Bay before, during an America's Cup World Series race.

"You go from this incredible tight-knit team to every-man-for-himself survival," he said. "All you care about is yourself, and you're just fighting each other for the best hand hold."

Catamaran crews are sailing twice as fast as those mono-hulled racing yachts of not so long ago and rocking high into the air.

"We've strapped heart rate monitors on the guys, and honestly it looks like a couple of them are having heart attacks," Spithill said.

Next year, Spithill will defend the America's Cup in San Francisco, knowing the thrill, and the danger, of this extreme sailing sport.

"There's real risk now, and I think as an audience, people, like that," he said. "If you're not getting close to capsizing, you're probably not trying hard enough."

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