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Big boats, big money vie for America's Cup

The America's Cup — sailing's premier event — is at once exhilarating, dangerous and highly technical and the price of entry can reach a $150 million.  CNBC's Dylan Ratigan reports.
/ Source: CNBC

In 1851 a schooner called “America” rose to the occasion and crushed all competitors in a European regatta, bringing the cup trophy back to the New York Yacht Club. It was then that the America’s Cup was born.

From 1851 to 1980 the Americans owned the cup, legendary helmsmen Dennis Conner and the ever-eccentric Ted Turner both possessing the trophy. But now, another team sits at the top and the entire world is chasing this sport of billionaires.

“It is so intense,” said Seahorse Magazine Editor Andrew Hurst. "The pressure on every person, on the boat, is huge. Seventeen athletes on deck. Racing a 26-ton, state-of-the-art, and carbon fiber sailboat. They race a 13-mile course one on one, towards the finish line. In a sport that has no second place.

There are twelve international teams competing in the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup, going head-to-head a mile off the coast for one of the most coveted prizes in sports.

“The America’s Cup stands as one of the pinnacle events in the entirety of sport. It is the oldest sporting trophy in the word," said Dyer Jones, America’s Cup Regatta Director.

It is at one exhilarating, beautiful, dangerous and highly technical. The 78-foot boats take 30,000 man-hours to craft and have changed dramatically. Between marketing, salaries, boat construction, R&D, the tab reaches a stunning $150 million.

“A main sail for one of these costs $100,000,” said Dyer. "Every jib costs $30,000 to $40,000 and those sails, their lifetimes are measured in hours. Not days, not weeks, not months, hours."

The rules of engagement have remained much the same since the race started in the 19th century.

“What other sport is governed by a document that was written 150 years ago by a bunch of old codgers back in New York City, that is modeled after the old duel days? You pick the weapon; I’ll pick the date. You turn first, I’ll shoot second,” said Peter Isler, BMW Oracle navigator.

“One of the duelers who holds all the cards but being the honorable dueler they say, ‘Well you can come and try and race for this big silver trophy, but to do so you have to on my terms,’” said Isler.

The terms: whichever boat wins the cup picks the next race venue. Challengers then enter the game and engage in a round robin elimination process, until one boat remains to take on the reigning champion. The most recent victor, a landlocked Swiss team, Alinghi. Dramatically capturing the cup in New Zealand in March 2003, the team brought the trophy back to Europe for the first time since the inaugural race.

But what are the intensities, or what’s the nature behind some of the rivalries? It obviously has the history and the intensity.

The most notable one, perhaps only because they’re billionaires, is Ernesto Bertarelli and Larry Ellison. Bertarelli has the cup with the Alinghi, the Swiss boat, while Ellison wants the cup with the BMW Oracle boat.

“It’s an intense rivalry and it’s a great friendship. Out on the racecourse no holds barred. Play by the rules, try to win and then go out for dinner at night”, said Jones.

“I really like Larry. He’s a great competitor. He’s a fair competitor and we really enjoy going at each other”, said Bertavelli.

The irony is that Bertarelli is from Switzerland.

“Well, I was born in Rome and I’ve been living all of my life in Switzerland. I’m Swiss," said Bertarelli. "We have a lot of water in Switzerland and most of it doesn’t have any salt. It’s lakes, but there are a lot of good sailors in Switzerland.” 

Forty year-old Bertarellli – a pharmaceutical heir and one of the richest men on the planet, has spent – along with principle sponsor UBS, vast sums on R&D to keep team Alinghi on top.

“We have to have the right mast, the correct sails," said Grant. "Then, we have to set that up and tune it correctly. Ninety-five percent of our time is spent developing and testing boats. Five percent of our time is spent racing.”

The top boats have teams of engineers; researchers and designers entrenched in their Valencia clubhouses, working around the clock to find the next best, and fastest thing.

“We have 55,000 pounds of lead underneath the boat, hanging in a big bowl," said Isler. "Basically the force of the wind. The 110 foot mast above it with a giant sail plant that carries two tennis courts worth of sail area.”

While some of the challengers have one boat and seventeen sailors, Alinghi fields two complete teams. Thirty-four sailors rotating on and off the boats. Ten more just to tend to the sails, and dozens dealing with marketing and PR.

BMW Oracle matches that.

“We look for a fraction of a percent. If we can make a gain of half, or a quarter percent in the drag of the hull, drag of the keel maybe it’s the stiffness of the mast or weight of the boat, any of these things translate into a faster boat”, said Ian Burns.

Design advancements are critical. But what wins races is a team’s ability to capture the wind, outmaneuver the other boar in one-on-one match play and best utilize brute physical strength.

“Historically, America’s Cup teams look to other sports, like rowers and professional football players, athletes that have upper body strength and good aerobic, anaerobic strength”, said Isler.

Team leaders comb the seas for elite skippers, trimmers, strategists, navigators, grinders and helmsmen.  And the question, can the sport of billionaires become a mainstream sport?

“It’s part of the game, an interesting part of the game. There are limitations as to what you can do”, said Jones.  “Breaking and entering is not allowed. Putting divers in the water is not allowed”.

Jones has a tough job monitoring people on the racecourse, too. New Zealand fans, fearing their beloved team would lose in 2003, threatened to kill Alinghi’s skipper, Brad Butterworth. He was forced to wear a bulletproof vest in the final regatta. Proving just how passionate sailing fans can be.

Getting the rest of the world to pay attention, minus the death threats, has put the sport in a bit of a quandary. Some believe it ought to remain a niche, elite sport. Others, principally the corporations backing the teams, would like more eyeballs on sailing.