Story and Photos by Mark Bunzel

America’s Cup racing may be the most exciting event in the boating world. This is especially so with high performance catamarans in the challenging seas of San Francisco Bay. I used to live and sail in the Bay area. I’m no expert, but I understand what they mean when they say, “If you can sail in San Francisco Bay, you can sail anywhere!”

Strong winds, swift currents, and even a cone in the changing lee area of Alcatraz Island make for ever-changing conditions. Now put a couple of very high performance catamarans there with the best sailors in the world and you have an outstanding race for the America’s Cup. 

For years I have dreamed of what it might be to have an America’s Cup race on the San Francisco waterfront. Typically, an America’s Cup race is offshore and poorly televised. This year that is not the case. Not only is there grand stand shoreside seating, but also excellent computer graphics to show exactly what is going on. Want to see a race? They are all streamed on YouTube for the America’s Cup.

Team Oracle USA, with losses in the first 6 races, had a rough start. Just when it looked like Team Oracle USA was going to be almost shut out of the America’s Cup racing by challenger Team Emirates New Zealand, they came back with a few adjustments to their boat and a crew that sailed brilliantly. The action on the course has been some of the best America’s Cup match racing ever, and may never be seen again. The AC72s are fast and the tactics added to the thrill and challenges on San Francisco Bay. San Francisco may turn out to be one of the best venues for America’s Cup racing. Over the weekend, the crowds approached 52,000 people for a total of three exciting races with many more watching on TV and internet streaming around the world.

Adding to the races is the fact that Team Oracle USA is so far behind and working towards a possible comeback. There was an exciting near capsize by Team Emirates NZ that killed their chances of winning the first race on Saturday. The catamaran was up to 44.8 degrees and helmsman Dean Barker commented after the race that a fraction of a degree more and she would have gone over. Apparently there was a problem with the human powered hydraulic system and they could not release the wing. At the last second the wing did release and by the time the boat crashed back down on its starboard hull with an understandably rattled crew, Team Oracle USA had scooted by and prevailed through the rest of the race. The second race on Saturday was cancelled while underway due to winds exceeding the upper wind limits. 

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Near capsize

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Dean Barker after the race.

Sunday morning was a different day, but Team Oracle USA won the first race in tough match racing. But during the second race of the day Team Emirates New Zealand kept gaining and in a close finish won the race.

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Foiling

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Larry Ellison enjoying the race.

The technology behind the boats is amazing. From the water, the boats are fast and at the same time fragile as they bounce with wind and current driven seas. Tactics, with respect for the complicated rules, are incredible, as both tacticians and their skippers look for an edge at speeds approaching 40 knots, and sometimes higher. Sailing up on foils is thrilling to watch as the boats lift and hop out of the water. Being able to gybe while staying up on the foils can make the difference of seconds and can lead to a win on the course. Control of the tilt of the foils is a new element as the boats fly through the course. It does not get much better than this!

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Working on the rig.

Team Emirates New Zealand just has to win two more races and they will take the Cup to New Zealand. Team Oracle USA just keeps getting better, but a comeback is tough and there is no room for any error. The two races on Tuesday could result in a final win for Team NZ or the continuation of exciting match racing as Team Oracle USA comes from behind. As we saw with the near capsize on Saturday, anything can happen and the race for the Cup is certainly not over.

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