A Cup of Caen: A Day with Oracle

It's not the speed that surprises me, it's the acceleration. It is last Friday and I am on Oracle's new 72-foot America's Cup catamaran, an hour into practice. This morning we have been practicing the start, a particularly nefarious endeavor on a boat that can go over 50 miles an hour. The goal in an America's Cup start is to hit the starting line right as gun goes off going as fast as you can. Get to the line too late and you wind up with a glorious view of the other boat's stern as it gallops off ahead of you. Too early and you get penalized, pretty much ending your day right there.

So time and time again the crew of Oracle Team USA practices taking their $10 million dollar heat-seeking missile into the starting area, turning and swerving as if they are maneuvering around an imaginary competitor. The crew is steely, quiet and determined, the only sound the countdown to the start from one of the grinders. "ONE MINUTE!"

Skipper Jimmy Spithill positions the boat below the line, mimicking what often happens when the two boats will hold for a moment, almost still. It seems an instant of eerie calm, but in reality the crew is trying to figure out how long it will take to get from that point to the line. I wonder if they are bordering on being late, but still the crew is almost frozen except for when the grinders spin their handles on orders from trimmer Dirk de Ridder, adjusting the gigantic 130 foot main sail.

The back of the boat has a quiet, constant communication going as the time ticks down. Today's America's Cup boats are literally floating computers, with control panels scattered across the boat and screens on the arms of the crew. When I first jumped on the boat in the middle of the bay, several of the crew were adjusting and checking settings on tablets that were plugged in to the bottom of the main sail. And yet at this most crucial moment, it seemed that the fate of the race was left only to the trained eyes of the crew. "30 SECONDS!"

Without a sound Spithill turns the wheel and suddenly the boat awakens. The grinders grit their teeth and their handles spin as the men power up the boat, short and sharp groans coming from the mast as the stresses jump. The distance to the starting line that seemed more than 30 seconds away is closing in gigantic leaps and bounds. It is about the tenth time the crew had done this today, and still the velocity feels unexpected.

Members of the crew fly past me, running from one side to the other as Oracle bares down on the starting line doing over 30 miles an hour. At rest, bobbing in the water at the Oracle base, the boat was easy to cross in a couple of dramatic bounds across the trampolines. Now with the boat heeled over and shuddering through the water, the men are literally running up a hill every time they change sides.

We cross the starting line perfectly and head toward the first mark. In what seems like a blink of an eye, we round the mark, and the signature moment of this year's Cup happens: I look through the trampoline and watch the boat rise up on its foil and hydroplanes. And now the acceleration really hits. And I'm surprised because I thought it would be smooth and linear, like a car. Instead it's a jumpy, stuttering feeling, as if the boat is lunge... lunge...lunging through the water. The boat completes the turn and heads back to the starting area to do it again.

Despite all the America's Cup controversies, once on the boats, all the noise disappears and is replaced by a new noise -- that of a catamaran going so fast it feels like you're sticking your head out of a car on the freeway. You get to "chew on the bay" (have water splashed into your face and mouth) on a fairly consistent basis as various parts of the boat dip into the water, throwing sheets of water up on the boat. Those trampolines are light and lower the weight on the boat, but they also provide no protection from the elements. The crew has headphones and microphones to help talk to each other over the commotion and also because of the distances between sailors on a boat this size.

There is nothing glamorous about what they are doing, running the same maneuvers over and over, trying it slightly different ways. The crew will blast across the line, then stop and convene to discuss minute changes. Balance will be altered, foils will be moved, and then they slog back into the starting area and do it again. I was planning to chat a little with Spithill, but it is obvious the second I get on that this is not the time nor the place; he is at the office, and there is work to be done.

We are sharing the starting area this day with the boats from New Zealand and Sweden. I notice that New Zealand and Oracle keep a wary distance from each other, but everyone is happy to see the Swedish syndicate, Artemis, back on the bay after their deadly crash. At one point Spithill points Oracle's bow directly at the big blue catamaran of Artemis, and heads straight for them. Having observed the cold precision of this crew for the last hour, I suspect there is a little intimidation about to happen. Instead, at the last moment the Oracle boat ducks under Artemis, and as we sweep past them the entire Oracle crew stands up and applauds the Swedes. It's the perfect moment to me, competition and camaraderie coming together at the same time. The Cup may have its issues on shore, but, just like these boats, it comes to life on the water.