The Team Oracle's trial run with its new 72-foot vessel, which also involved practice changing sails, drew spectators and spies from other teams to the bay.
Photo: Sarah Rice, Special To The Chronicle
(09-28) 23:57 PDT -- On the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay, a billionaire's game of cat and mouse is under way.
It involves big boats, bigger sails and the biggest egos around. And it's all about building the fastest sailboat known to man.
The game was on full display Friday afternoon when Team Oracle Racing, Larry Ellison's reigning champion of the America's Cup, took its massive AC72 catamaran out on the water for one of the boat's first test runs.
We followed in a chase boat to see what all the fuss was about. It turns out that testing one of these boats is major news in the sailing world. Under the rules, the richly financed teams that will contest the Cup on the bay next September have only 30 days of testing on the water between now and the end of January.
So, if one of them takes to the waves, the other guys are sure to follow - video cameras in hand - hoping to sneak a peek at the competition's design. That explains the bright red inflatable rib boat following Oracle around Friday afternoon. It was a spy boat manned by the good sailors of New Zealand's Emirates Team. Not far behind them was a smaller, beige inflatable, likely manned by spies from Sweden's Artemis Racing, according to the skipper of our boat.
As we dashed across the water watching Oracle put its huge new boat through its paces, the specter of spies and subterfuge added an exciting tinge to a day of practice. High seas and high drama. Throw in a plot to take over the world and James Bond would be on the next flight to SFO.
Big boat moves fast
With the competition in pursuit, Team Oracle had plenty to show off.
Its version of next year's catamaran - known as the AC72 - is an impressive vessel. Two colossal carbon-fiber hulls are held together by huge crossbars, which support a single-wing sail that reaches more than 130 feet into the sky.
When all goes well, the huge sail - which is made of stiff carbon-fiber and does not billow - can propel the AC72 at speeds faster than the wind. That much was clear as we tried to keep up with Team Oracle once the boat was off and running. At one point, our own inflatable rib boat was cruising at well over 30 knots ... and Team Oracle was pulling away from us. The sight of the catamaran with one of its hulls in the air, spraying water in every direction as the sailors hang on for dear life, was spectacular.
At another point in the action, Oracle slowed its boat to practice changing sails. During the process, something went wrong and the team had to send a sailor up the rigging to fix things. The poor guy was winched up about 100 feet in the air, and he stayed up there for nearly half an hour working on a variety of changes. When I asked how they picked the sailor for that kind of thing, I was told: "They pick the lightest guy."
A bit of practice
If you're interested in getting a peek at this clandestine world of spies and spinnakers, a scaled-down version of the AC72 boat design will be on full display next week when the America's Cup World Series comes to town for the second time. Team Oracle will be racing against international teams using smaller catamarans - dubbed AC45s - in a series of races starting Tuesday and ending Sunday.
The racecourse is off the north coast of the city, roughly between Crissy Field and Alcatraz. With multiple boats racing at high speeds on such a small course, there should be plenty of bumping and capsizing to go around. In last month's installment, Oracle Racing CEO Russell Coutts clipped teammate Jimmy Spithill's boat during one of the races.
Coutts ended up beating the famed Spithill, proving all is fair in love and wharf.