San Francisco Tour Tales

 Everything You Need to Know about The America’s Cup

By Gloria Lenhart

Just days before the first rounds of the America’s Cup race were set to start on the Bay, we had a chance to talk with Kimball Livingston, Editor at Large for SAIL magazine, author of a sailing blog at and an international sailor.

What is the history of the America’s Cup?
The silver trophy now known as the America’s Cup was originally the 100 Pounds Cup when placed in competition in 1851. That year, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert hosted “The Great Exhibition” in Hyde Park, the first world’s fair. They invited the world to come and display their latest technological advancements. Six members of the New York Yacht Club built a racing yacht and named it America. Newspapers warned they were going to embarrass the whole country. Right away, Her Majesty’s yachtsmen recognized the boat’s potential and did not want to race. But the London press shamed them into admitting the America into the Royal Yacht Squadron’s race around the Isle of Wight. The America won decisively in an age when Britannia ruled the waves. The trophy was deeded in trust for international competition and became known as the America’s Cup. Americans held on to the trophy for 132 years.

Did the Brits eventually win the cup back?
No, although English clubs raced New York 25 consecutive times. Finally, it was Australia’s Royal Perth Yacht Club in 1983 that was able to beat New York and claim the trophy. The New York Yacht Club still keeps an empty space in their trophy room for the Cup, should they ever win in back.

How often is the America’s Cup race run?
There is no regular schedule. The race is run when a qualified yacht club challenges the club holding the Cup. After losing the 100 Pounds Cup to New York in 1851, it took the Brits almost 20 years to challenge to take back what they now called the America’s Cup. And there was another 20-year gap during World War II and the post-war years. This year’s race will be the 34th time the America’s Cup has been challenged in its 162-year history.

How was San Francisco chosen as the race venue?
The winner gets to pick the next venue – and (within limits) writes the rules for the race. In 2010, the Golden Gate Yacht Club and their racing team, BMW Oracle Racing, challenged the Swiss who held the trophy. The BMW Oracle USA team won that race in Valencia, Spain. They chose San Francisco Bay as their venue,

What makes the Bay an unusual venue?
The Bay has extraordinary wind speeds, much faster than in other venues, which can make racing more challenging. The winds of the Bay are also highly reliable in summer, not the case in most parts of the world. And this will be the first America’s Cup that can be viewed from land. Historically, the race course was so far offshore that few could see it. The Bay course was designed specifically so that the boats would be continuously visible from the viewing stands. 

What makes the AC72s in this race different than other sailboats?
Everything. Since the beginning, America’s Cup races have always pushed the envelope on technolog. In 2010, BMW Oracle racing pioneered the wing sail you see on the AC72s. It is much like an airplane wing, with a super-light carbon fiber frame and hydraulic controls wrapped inside a thin plastic film. On the 72-foot America’s Cup boats, the wing is 131 feet tall, the height of a 13 story building. It takes a crew of 30 people and a crane to raise and lower the sail each day. With an onboard crew of 11, they can achieve near-freeway speeds that push to 50 miles an hour.

You’ve said the boats can literally fly over the water. How and when does that happen?
It’s called foiling. When the boats reach a certain speed, they are designed to rise up and skim over the water. They only do this downwind, away from the Golden Gate. Only thin centerboards and rudders– just a few inches of carbon fiber — stay in contact with the water. This reduces drag and makes the boats very fast. In fact, new rules were needed to control the speed of these boats and increase safety.

Are all the America’s Cup boats the same?
No. Teams build their hulls separately and in secret in their home countries. Each team constantly looks for design changes that might give them an advantage. And the teams regularly spy on one another to find out what the others are up to.

What is the defender of the Cup, Oracle Team USA, doing to prepare for the race?
They are currently the only team with two working boats on the water. While the challengers compete for the Louis Vuitton Cup that determines who goes into the finals, Oracle is staying sharp by racing their two boats and crews against each other in preparation for the big event starting Sept. 7.

What teams will you be watching?
Right now, the Emirates New Zealand team is the favorite to win the Louis Vuitton Cup. Artemis Racing is the challenger of record but they’ve had some setbacks, including a racing accident that resulted in the tragic death of one of their team members. The Italian team, Luna Rossa, is sailing a boat with slightly older technology. But in the stiff winds and strong tidal currents of the Bay anything can happen.

Any tips for watching the race?
One of the most exciting parts of the race will happen near the top of the course in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. The boats will be racing upwind, then have to quickly turn their 13-story sails broadside to turn back downwind. It’s a difficult maneuver that could be critical to success. If you can’t get to the Marina Green, then watch the race on a big screen either at Pier 27/29, at your favorite sports bar, or online. On-screen graphics for this race will be similar to what you see in NFL football, helping explain what’s happening on the water. It’s the first time this technology has been used in sailing and should make the race really fun to watch.

America’s Cup is the oldest international sport trophy still actively contested.

Spoiler: The Golden Gate Yacht Club was able to successfully defend the cup

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the August, 2013 issue of Guidelines, a publication of SF City Guides.