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Sea change

Massive new trimaran may barge its way into America's Cup competition

By Bernie Wilson
Associated Press / November 9, 2008
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SAN DIEGO - This might be what "The Road Warrior" would look like if it had been filmed on the ocean.

A massive three-hulled boat, sometimes seemingly on the edge of losing control as its windward hull flies 15 feet above the water, is being pursued across the waves by four much smaller boats. One of them carries two suspected spies from an archrival syndicate eager for a closer look.

A Navy helicopter circles for a closer view of the carbon-fiber beast, with a mast as tall as a 16-story building and a mainsail twice as big as a Boeing 747's wing.

It's quite a sight when BMW Oracle Racing hits the Pacific Ocean to test its 90-foot trimaran, a high-tech boat so powerful and potentially lethal that its crewmen wear crash helmets and life vests, hardly the normal America's Cup gear.

"There really aren't any boats like this out there," said tactician John Kostecki, who likens the crew to test pilots. "Most of the stuff that we're doing, we're pushing the edge."

The trimaran, known simply as BOR 90 and owned by Oracle software boss Larry Ellison, could help turn the stodgy old America's Cup into an extreme sport if it makes its way to the starting line.

The radical craft was built in anticipation of a rare one-on-one showdown against two-time defending America's Cup champion Alinghi of Switzerland. The boat's future, as well as that of a multihull boat being built by the Swiss, depends on the outcome of BMW Oracle Racing's appeal in a New York Court.

San Francisco-based BMW Oracle Racing has been in a bitter court fight for more than a year trying to become the Challenger of Record, which would give it the right to help Alinghi set the rules for the next multichallenger America's Cup.

If BMW Oracle Racing triumphs in court and the two sides still can't agree to terms for a traditional regatta, they'll face off in their giant multihulls for the oldest trophy in international sports.

While BMW Oracle Racing wants to get the America's Cup back to normal, its sailors can't help but visualize racing the giant boats. BOR 90 is 90 feet long and 90 feet wide, the same size as a baseball diamond. It's just shorter than an NBA court.

"Oh, mate, I would love to race this thing," said Australian-born helmsman James Spithill. "You see it out there on the water, just imagine two of these things just going at it during a race. It would be unreal to see it. It's never been done before having a multihull like this, with this amount of power-to-weight ratio.

"It would be a real shame if us and Alinghi, we have these two machines and we don't get to race. It would be an awesome thing to watch."

Even Mr. America's Cup himself, Dennis Conner, would like to see the two syndicates face off in their giant boats.

"It's quite the machine, isn't it?" said Conner, a San Diegan who won the America's Cup four times. "I watch it go out every day. It's so fast they can't sail in the harbor."

Secrets on the seas

The boat, berthed at Conner's former base camp in downtown San Diego, is towed onto the ocean, where its giant mainsail and jib are hoisted.

While the current America's Cup sloops generally do about 10 knots, BOR 90 can sail at 2-2 1/2 times the speed of the wind. Syndicate CEO Russell Coutts, a three-time America's Cup winner who defeated Conner in 1995 off San Diego, said BOR 90 has hit speeds approaching 40 knots.

"It can go a lot faster than that, that's for sure," said Coutts, who estimated BOR 90 could make it to Hawaii in two days.

The Coast Guard refers to such vessels as an "attractive nuisance."

"We told them that we'd be way offshore and going so fast that nobody can keep up with us," BMW Oracle spokesman Tom Ehman said. "There have been no problems at all."

Even the syndicate's chase boats - one of which carries a medic, a diver, and a backup diver in case of an accident - struggle to keep up when BOR 90 hooks into a breeze.

Twenty years ago, Conner fought back a rogue challenge from New Zealander Michael Fay, both in court and on the water, sailing a catamaran to a two-race sweep of the Kiwis' massive monohull.

BOR 90 "makes my cat look like a Volkswagen," Conner said. "This thing is like bigger, faster, better, and they've done a great job in bringing all the technology together in this boat.

"The whole sailing world will benefit by having this out on the race course in a lot of different ways," Conner said. "I applaud Larry Ellison for building this boat. I'd like to see it race and I'd like to see Larry win because Alinghi is trying to shanghai the event."

BMW Oracle Racing won't divulge much information about the boat, including its weight. While Conner and others would love to have a ride, no one but the crew, designers, builders, and experts on multihull racing have been allowed aboard.

It's been estimated that BOR 90 cost Ellison, a competitive sailor, well more than $10 million.

Even Coutts, one of the most dominant skippers in America's Cup history, is blown away.

"When I jump on a horse I've got no control over the horse," the New Zealander said in offering an analogy. "Some people know what to do, but I don't, and the horse pretty much knows that. That's what I felt when I first jumped on this thing. It's like another stratosphere in terms of the experience I've had and the sailing I've done. When I step on this thing, it's just way different."

Element of danger

BOR 90 was built and launched in Anacortes, Wash., where it underwent initial sea trials. The boat was barged to San Diego and testing resumed in early October. The crew could be here into next year while the syndicate's appeal is heard.

They're not alone. Spying is inherent in the America's Cup, and Ehman said he's identified two Alinghi representatives who have a hotel room overlooking BOR 90's berth. During a recent testing session, a BOR chase boat pulled alongside a small boat carrying two men. Ehman took a picture with his cell phone.

When BOR 90 catches a good breeze, the windward hull flies some 15 feet off the waves and the center hull is just skimming the surface.

Spithill said it was stressful the first few times he steered.

"Just the size and the consequences of what can happen, it takes you a little while to get used to," he said. "But now, it's an amazing feeling, you know. You're just sort of flying up in the air, just the amount of power the boat has. It's an incredible experience."

The consequences, of course, could include capsizing. If the boat were to flip, sailors could be thrown from a height equivalent to a nine-story building.

"That would be bad," Coutts said. "People would probably get hurt.

"We're slowly learning how to push the boat harder and harder, and when you can sail it closest to the edge, that's when it's going to be the fastest."

"There's still a lot more sailing to go before we're comfortable with it," said Kostecki. "Every single day we leave the dock, I definitely feel like a test pilot, so to speak."

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