America’s Cup: What to know about sailing’s showpiece

The boats are space-age rocketships, rising out of the water to fly on foils, powered by towering wing sails, and crewed by “superhumans.”

It can only be the 35th America’s Cup, which begins Friday in Bermuda.

The latest edition of sailing’s most celebrated competition is a far cry from yesteryear, when sleek but sluggish monohulls dueled offshore.

It is being dubbed “F1 on water” and the similarities are obvious – eye-watering speeds of more than 50 mph, cutting-edge design and materials, intensive telemetry and data-driven development, and inshore racing close to the fans.

The prize is the Auld Mug — the sterling silver America’s Cup itself — first awarded in 1851 and known as the oldest trophy in international sport.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s the format?

The event begins with the Louis Vuitton qualifiers, a round-robin, match-racing competition from May 26-June 3 before the knockout series of challenger playoffs from June 4-12.

The 35th America’s Cup between the victorious challenger and defender Oracle Team USA (which also takes part in the qualifiers) is scheduled for June 17-18 and June 24-27.

Each race will last 20-25 minutes and involve several upwind and downwind legs on Bermuda’s Great Sound before finishing in front of the America’s Cup race village.

This “stadium racing” is an evolution of the last Cup in San Francisco Bay in 2013 and is designed to be more fan and TV friendly to attract a new audience.

“From a sailing perspective and also a fan perspective it is a great thing to bring the racing in close,” says America’s Cup chief executive Russell Coutts, a three-time Cup-winning skipper.

In another break with tradition, all six teams have been racing against each other in practice on the Great Sound, throwing up some early contenders and generating plenty of gossip.

It’s been a time of intrigue and scrutiny as hands are revealed for the first time. Have they been showing their full potential? Probably not. Are they all up to speed? Not yet. Are there upgrades to come in equipment and new crew configurations in the pipeline? You bet.

Who is involved?

The Defender

Oracle Team USA, skippered by Australian Jimmy Spithill and bankrolled by Larry Ellison, are aiming for a three-repeat after that remarkable 9-8 victory from 8-1 down against Team New Zealand in San Francisco. The team includes Australian Olympic Laser gold medalist Tom Slingsby as tactician.

The Americans have appeared quick in practice, but they suffered a scare recently when they capsized, although no-one was hurt and no damage was done to the boat.

“We’ve shown that we are a hard team to close out. We’re going to fight until the final race, win or lose. The other teams know that,” Slingsby told Oracle’s website.

The Challengers

Emirates Team New Zealand are seeking redemption for their defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory loss four years ago.

They have a new skipper in Australian Glenn Ashby, a multi-hull expert who won the Cup with Oracle in 2010 and was part of the Kiwi crew under Dean Barker in San Francisco. New Zealander Peter Burling, a gold medalist at Rio 2016, will be on the helm.

The New Zealanders sparked a flurry of pre-Cup gossip with the introduction of pedal-powered, cycling-style grinders to drive the winches instead of arm-operated ones.

They suffered a blip in practice recently when Land Rover BAR hit their boat in a maneuver, losing a day of training for repairs.

“We know Ben well, he is a good guy, but frustration is obviously getting to him and the red mist came down and it’s a lot of damage in a time we can’t afford it,” said Team NZ chief executive Grant Dalton.

Land Rover BAR is the entry of four-time Olympic champion Ben Ainslie, who was instrumental in Oracle’s win last time. The Briton’s oft-stated goal is to take back the Auld Mug to the UK for the first time since the inaugural event around the Isle of Wight in 1851.

Ainslie has assembled a largely homegrown outfit which draws on the F1 prowess of its chief executive Martin Whitmarsh, the former boss of McLaren Mercedes.

Land Rover BAR won the 2015-2016 World Series warm-up circuit, but has struggled with the pace of some of the other teams in practice in Bermuda.

Ainslie played down the incident with Team New Zealand, calling it a “love tap.”

“I wouldn’t lay my cards down on who’s got the speed or not until we start racing in the qualifiers,” Ainslie told CNN.

“That will be the true gauge of where the teams are. Then even through that series and into the playoffs and the Cup itself, teams need to be developing if they are going to be successful.”

Artemis Racing is a Swedish syndicate led by Britain’s two-time Olympic champion Iain Percy, who doubles as tactician.

The team were devastated by the death of Percy’s Olympic partner Andrew Simpson in a tragic accident in San Francisco ahead of the last Cup, but they have been the form team in practice in Bermuda this spring with their boat dubbed “Magic Blue.”

The team is skippered by Australia’s London 2012 gold medalist Nathan Outteridge, with his Olympic crewmate Iain Jensen as trimmer.

“Our speed is quite comparable with the top teams but that counts for absolutely nothing.” says Percy.

“It’s all about the relentless chasing after improvements and in this team we are very motivated to keep pushing.”

SoftBank Team Japan is a new entry to the competition, but has at its helm Kiwi veteran Barker, a winner in 2000 who will be sailing in his sixth America’s Cup.

Japanese sailing great Kazuhiko Sofuku is also on the team alongside countrymen Yugo Yoshida and Yuki Kasatani. Britain’s Olympic bronze medalist Chris Draper is tactician and sailing team manager. The team have worked closely with Oracle in the build-up.

“Every day you go out on the water, everyone is still improving at a very rapid rate,” Barker told

“It definitely rings true for us that there are always gains to be had right from the first race to the last race that you do.”

Groupama Team France is another newcomer and is led by round-the-world and offshore sailing great Franck Cammas.

The multi-hull expert and winning Volvo Ocean Race skipper nearly lost his foot when he was thrown under the foils during a training accident in 2015.

The French are considered underdogs in Bermuda, with a learning curve described as “exponential” by grinder Nicholas Heintz.

The boats

The boats are essentially identical 48-foot — reduced from 72 feet in 2013 — twin-hulled catamarans with a 77-foot high rigid wing sail, which rise out of the water on hydrofoils the size of surfboards to sail three-times faster than the speed of the wind and more than 50 mph.

The cutting-edge design element comes in the foil packages, and the systems were developed to move the hydraulic power around more efficiently.

With no stored power, all the energy to drive the hydraulics, which adjust the wing and lower and raise the daggerboards that support the foils, must come from the crew.

Foiling — when the hulls rise out of the water — is the fastest way to sail as it reduces friction.

It was first introduced in 2013 when the Kiwis spotted a loophole in the laws, forcing the other teams to scramble to catch up. It has since exploded across every discipline of sailing.

The optimum state is “stable flight,” when the boat maintains a consistent platform on its foils, particularly through turns. Foiling gybes (when the stern passes through the wind) became the norm in 2013; foiling tacks (bow turns through the wind) are now the holy grail.

“The game changer for me was foiling, we got lucky really,” Percy told reporters at a news conference on London.

“Not only did it provide speed, which was apparent immediately, but it allowed racing to be very tactical because boats could turn very fast without losing speed.”

The sailors

The AC 45Fs are manned by a crew of six, broadly divided into the roles of helmsman, wing trimmer, a tactician who doubles as a grinder and three other grinders.

Rules limit the total crew weight to 525 kg (1,157 lbs), meaning an average of 87.5 kg (193 lbs) per man (they are all men).

Teams tend to save weight in their rear two sailors (helm and wing trimmer) to add to the engine room (the grinders). In pre-2013 Cups, grinders were 100 kg-plus (220 lbs) giants capable of short bursts of power.

Now, endurance is key as they need to keep grinding for the entire duration of a race.

Training programs have changed accordingly, and sailors have become elite endurance athletes — and in the case of Team New Zealand, elite cyclists.

“It’s beyond anything physical I’ve ever done,” Percy told CNN.

The history

The America’s Cup began with a race around Britain’s Isle of Wight in 1851. The winner was the U.S. yacht “America,” which received a silver jug — renamed the America’s Cup — as its prize.

Since then the competition has been seen by many as the pinnacle of sailing, incorporating the best technology at the time and the best sailors.

It was dominated by American syndicates until Australian businessman Alan Bond’s Australia II beat Dennis Conner’s Liberty in Newport in 1983.

The Americans dominated again until 1995, when Team New Zealand won and defended the Cup in 2000.

Swiss outfit Alinghi, bankrolled by biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli and with a host of Kiwi defectors, ruled in 2003 and 2007 before Oracle Team USA began their reign.

The fierce competition and boundary-pushing technology has led to much intrigue and controversy over the years, with legal rulings seemingly as much part of the Cup as the sailing.

Why Bermuda?

The winner of the America’s Cup decides where the next one will take place and its format. Oracle Team USA moved away from San Francisco, which it had chosen for 2013, and settled on Bermuda.

The Atlantic archipelago is composed of 181 islands, totaling 21 square miles, and has just over 60,000 residents.

“People have asked why Bermuda is such a good venue for the America’s Cup, and one of the main reasons is the Great Sound,” adds Coutts.

“It provides a relatively smooth water venue for foiling, but it also allows people watching close up a view of the racing from all around the Great Sound.

“The confined race courses of today create new challenges, but in my opinion that’s good and makes the racing more interesting.”

A popular greeting on the beach-blessed island is “Wopnin?” which stands for “What’s happening?”

The America’s Cup is happening.