RUSSELL COUTTS DIDN’T plan his violent crash on the San Francisco Bay, but his timing was almost perfect. It was June 2011, and Coutts, a 50-year-old New Zealander and four-time winner of the America’s Cup, was showing off a new type of ultralight, high-speed catamaran at a media event. During a morning presentation, the journalists were told that the boats, made mostly of carbon fiber and powered by giant, rigid wing sails, would transform the 34th America’s Cup, to be held on the bay in 2013, into a thrilling sport with “a significant amount of risk.” Sailors would need to be extremely fit and were required to wear helmets. There would be accidents.
Six hours later, Coutts flew helmet-first through the shrink-wrap-like transparent skin of his wing sail. He’d been at the helm during a practice race when he buried the bows into the waves at 22 knots—roughly 25 miles per hour—and the boat flipped end over end. The wing sail hit the water first, causing the hulls to pirouette in midair before smashing down on one side. Three of the five sailors aboard held on, but Coutts was flung through the wing. He emerged unscathed, but another crew member fell from the stern and suffered dislocated rib cartilage. A photo of the wipeout made the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle the next day, and a video clip lit up YouTube.
And just like that, the rebranding of the America’s Cup was under way.
It’s always been an upwind battle to build a mainstream audience for sailing, but in recent years a litany of lawsuits between billionaire team owners over the Cup’s byzantine rules regarding boat design gutted the race’s fan base. U.S. television networks ignored the last Cup, held in Valencia, Spain, and even hardcore yachting fans have abandoned ship. As the CEO of Oracle Racing, the American team that won the 2010 Cup, Coutts is tasked with rebooting the race in advance of the next edition. The project starts with catamarans that are twice as fast as classic monohulls, highly prone to capsizing, and capable of performing in extremely light winds—meaning no TV-killing race delays. And the events will no longer be held offshore but in smaller bodies of water, with shoreline access for crowds and tighter racecourses that force action.
“The danger factor is just one piece of the puzzle,” says Coutts.
Right: the biggest piece.
IN 1987, DENNIS CONNER won the America’s Cup during live coverage on ESPN, three years after becoming the first American to lose it since the race was first held in 1851. His victory lap included the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated (the latter alongside President Reagan). That was the peak. By 2007, after years of declining ratings, ESPN ceded rights to Versus. The 2010 Cup wasn’t televised in the U.S. at all.
That year Oracle Racing, which is owned by the software mogul Larry Ellison, captured the Cup with a mammoth 90-by-90-foot wing-sail-powered trimaran that looked like something stolen from the set of Star Trek. As the new Cup defender, Ellison was granted the power to rewrite the race’s rules so long as the challenger of record agreed to them. (You can see where the lawsuits start.) His protocol for the 34th Cup called for a complete reboot: all challengers would race the 2013 contest in the same ultralight 72-foot wing-powered catamarans, dubbed AC72s, with only minor allowances for adaptations. The teams would also be required to enter the America’s Cup World Series, a two-year international circuit raced on more forgiving 45-foot boats, called AC45s, so sailors could adapt and engineers would have time to figure out the giant AC72—and so Ellison’s operation could market the new breed of sailing to the public and potential sponsors. His goal was “to convert sailing into an extreme sport.”