SAN DIEGO — Oh, to be a college student and get the chance to sail in some of the fastest, coolest boats around.
Two crews of Americans are among the 10 teams that will get to experience the same thrills and quite possibly the wild spills that the big boys have when they contest the first Red Bull Youth America’s Cup Sept. 1-4 on San Francisco Bay, right before the 34th America’s Cup begins.
There’s never been anything like it in the 162-year history of the America’s Cup, and it’s another way organizers are trying to modernize what had been a stodgy old competition.
Sailing isn’t cheap and Team USA45 Racing, which features three San Diegans among its eight-man crew, must raise $500,000 to cover a summer of training followed by four days of racing. So far, it’s raised just more than $100,000.
Jimmy Spithill of Oracle Team USA, the youngest skipper to win the America’s Cup, spoke at a fundraiser for Team USA45 Racing this week at the San Diego Yacht Club, the one-time home of the oldest trophy in international sports.
“We’ve never had that sort of pathway in the America’s Cup, and that’s so bloody frustrating when young people can’t find a way to get there,” said Spithill, an Australian who has a home in San Diego. “Now we have the exact same concept, we have that same kind of boats that are half the size and they get to race on the exact same race track in the exact same stadium. It’s a huge, huge thing. Obviously it’s a perfect way to segue to the next generation and talent.”
The RBYAC teams will sail 45-foot wing-sail catamarans that syndicates have been sailing in the America’s Cup World Series since 2011. The real America’s Cup teams are moving up to 72-foot cats for this summer’s Louis Vuitton Cup, which will decide the opponent for Oracle in the America’s Cup match.
Spithill is a rare example of a young sailor breaking into the America’s Cup. The Australian was 19 when he sailed in his first America’s Cup campaign, in 1999-2000. He was 30 when he skippered BMW Oracle Racing to victory over Alinghi of Switzerland in 2010 off Valencia, Spain.
While it’s traditionally been a long haul through the Olympics and professional sailing to get to the Cup, the RBYAC coincides with an era in which more young sailors are breaking into sailing’s marquee event. The boats are physically demanding to sail and many of the sailors come from skiffs and other high-performance boats.
Spithill and his boss, four-time America’s Cup winner Russell Coutts, came up with the idea for the youth regatta, and Red Bull jumped on board.
“They’re really one of those companies that, with their motto of `Red Bull gives you wings,’ tries to promote the next generation,” Spithill said. “It’s a perfect fit for them. The boats have wings. I’ve actually been able to go out with some of the guys on the back of the boat in the selection series and man, I can tell you there’s a lot of talent out there. There’s no doubt some of these athletes will be involved in the next Cup.”
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Hans-Peter Steinacher, one of the RBYAC’s sporting directors, said Coutts wanted to see the AC45s continue to be sailed “because the boats are so nice and so powerful and physically insane. This is the most physical boat you can sail.”
At 24, skipper Charlie Buckingham of Newport Beach is the old man of Team USA45 Racing. A Georgetown graduate, he’s in charge of a crew that includes a 23- and 21-year-old, two 20-year-olds and three 19-year-olds.
This won’t be a summer camp or floating frat party.
“We’re all serious athletes and sailors and we understand the commitment we have to have and that there’s no time to screw around,” said Buckingham, who hopes to make the U.S. Olympic team for Rio in the Laser class. “The game is changing. Sailing these boats is extremely physical and I guess like any other athlete, you need to care of yourself 24-7. You have to run a strict program and make sure you’re 100 percent ready every time you step on the boat.”
Wing trimmer Jake LaDow, 19, of San Diego is the grandson of Jerry LaDow, who was executive director of Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup campaigns in the 1990s. Bowman Jake Reynolds, 19, is the son of Jim Reynolds, who handled fundraising for Conner.
“As soon as he found out we were getting into this, his face just dropped. `Oh my God, I’ve got to fund-raise again,”’ said Reynolds, who attends College of Charleston. “It’s a real effort to put it together, but it’s a cool learning experience.”
Each team is supplied an AC45 boat and its radical wing mainsail. Everything else is up to the teams, including the cost of training in San Francisco, hiring a coach and numerous other expenses.
“The list is very long,” said LaDow, who attends St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “It’s obviously a very expensive sport so the money needs to be there to do it right.”
Then they have to master the boats. While the professional crews use five men to sail the AC45s, the youth crews will have six.
Almost every America’s Cup team has capsized its 45-footer.
“During our selection trials, basically the first thing they taught us before everything else was either what to do if we capsize, or how not to capsize,” LaDow said. “They said if you capsize, don’t go through the wing or it will cost you a lot of money, so hold on.”
Coutts himself fell through a wing when he capsized an AC45 during testing on San Francisco Bay in 2011.
Spithill is the only sailor who’s capsized an AC45 and an AC72. Crews don’t intend to wipe out, but it happens due to the speed of the boat, the quickness of maneuvers and the weather conditions.
“They’ve certainly got the right guy to advise them there, let me tell you,” Spithill said. “It’s something that they’re going to have to balance. It’s really like auto racing with risk-reward. The harder you push the accelerator, the faster you go, but there’s a chance you hit the wall.”
Team USA45 Racing’s coach is Charlie Ogletree, a silver medalist in the 2004 Olympics.
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