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America's Cup sailors are a special breed

The sailors at the America's Cup race in Valencia, Spain are a special breed that has sacrificed much to reach the pinnacle of their sport.  But while the top crew member can make as much as $200,000 a year,  further down the food chain they aren’t earning much. By CNBC's Dylan Ratigan
/ Source: CNBC

This vibrant city is known for its Mediterranean beaches, quaint street cafes, and the famed festival of San Juan that draws 80,000 people. It’s also a city in transition.

The fish markets that once ringed the harbor have given way to America’s Cup clubhouses. Each with VIP hosting lounges, pressrooms and workout facilities, where the best in sailing ready themselves for fierce competition.

“Everyone determined to take up sailing professionally want to be in the America’s Cup. It’s the game in town," said Seahorse Magazine Editor, Andrew Hurst.

When the start gun blasts, the games begin just off the beach.

The crew, out on the water for six hours, burn through 5,000 calories.

“From a physical standpoint of view imagine hosting a 500 square meter sail in heavy conditions. That’s a couple of tons of resistance which these guys physically have to grind up in these boats," said Julian Calefato, the Shosholoza trainer.

Brad Butterworth, two-time cup champion, is calling the shots for top boat, team Alinghi.

“The strategy is coming from the back of the boat but a lot of the observations might be made around the boat," said Butterworth.

And above the boat, when wind fades sailors are hoisted in search of better conditions.

“They’re all climbers, skiers, extreme skiers, extreme stuff that’s just part of everyday life, whereas the older guys in the back would go nowhere near it," said Butterworth.

The teams also have chase boats with extra $100,000 sails, each tailored to accommodate existing conditions. Weather boats are on the course, as well. The bigger the budget, the more sophisticated the technology.

“They’re monitoring the shifting of the wind back and forth and if they see some pattern to the time of it, they can time our next shift, give us an indications of where it might go next and then we position ourselves against our opponent to take advantage of that," said Peter Holmberg, Alinghi helmsman.

The sailors here in Valencia are a special breed that has sacrificed much to reach the pinnacle of their sport. While the top guys on the top boats are earning $200,000 a year.

“Go down the food chain and they ain’t earning a lot at all," said Hurst.

On top of that, the sport wreaks havoc on sailor’s bodies; trainers are on staff to out them back together after each race

Mark Sadler is skipper for the underdogs, South African team, Shosholoza.

“A lot of the guys had never raced competitively on anything before they started with this project. The guys have grinded it the last three years and really put their hearts into it. It’s becoming successful," said Sadler.

Salvatore is Captain Sarno. The man behind Shosholoza who amassed a fortune in the shipping business, then decided to conquer something monumental.

“My aim was to show the world the new face of South Africa. I think we’re doing something good for the country and we are proud of that," said Sarno.

Historically an all-white sport, Italian-born Sarno broke down the color barrier.

“I lived in South Africa and I know what the South Africans are able to do. I am very proud of the crew. They have ambition, they have love for their country and they are following my crazy idea," said Sarno.

“When we started, none of us had ever dreamt of doing the America’s Cup. It was quite a surprise when Salvatore said ‘Come, let’s get together and do America’s Cup’," said Skipper Mark Sadler.

The African boat and the Chinese boat are just some of the boats that have never been to the America’s Cup before.

“This is the wonderful thing. The new players that come into the game. The new personalities, the new teams and the South Africans are a prime example. They’re sailing competitively; they’ve learned the game. It’s a young, enthusiastic crowd and they’re going to do well," said Dyer Jones, America’s Cup Regatta Director.

Shosholoza’s operation is modest compared to BMW Oracle, its next-door neighbor. The South African’s have simply learned to improvise.

Garbage bins instead of whirlpool tubs. One boat instead of two. But, money buys speed. A recently inked $20 million sponsorship deal with Germany’s T Systems has helped the rookie team reach contender status.

“Yesterday they finished second to Alinghi by only a few boat lengths. Two years ago they would have been behind by a horizon," said Jones

“I didn’t think we’d ever get as good as we are right now. I mean, it’s gotten bigger and bigger. When we first started we were really just there for the adventure. Now, the adventure’s sort of over and it’s become a competition. It’s really good," said Sadler.

Team Shosholoza, the Cinderella story of the America’s Cup amazingly has the best boat in the world looking over its shoulders.

“We can’t afford to focus on only one challenger. Shosholoza, who has been the most improved for last year could end up being the challenger," said Baird.

Now the biggest challenge for the sport, creating a wider audience, making people aware of the grace, the action, the excitement and the rich history behind the oldest sporting trophy in the world.