- The Washington Times - Friday, February 12, 2010

VALENCIA, Spain | Tearing along the Mediterranean so fast it nearly lifted all the way out of the water, BMW Oracle Racing’s monster trimaran made up for a bad start and put an American team on the verge of winning the America’s Cup for the first time since 1995.

BMW Oracle Racing overtook two-time defending champion Alinghi of Switzerland on Friday and sped off with the first race of their bitter showdown, borne along on a radical wing and a computer-age tycoon’s staggering budget.

The 223-foot wing clearly was the thing, flying the stodgy old America’s Cup right into a new era.

“The designers did a brilliant job,” said Silicon Valley maverick Larry Ellison, who didn’t even get to sail aboard the boat he owns because of a weight limit. “The piece of the kit that we’re most proud of is the wing. We think it’s a terrific engine for this boat.”

Even Ellison’s staunch rival, Swiss biotech mogul Ernesto Bertarelli, was impressed.

“They were fast today and the wing seems to be quite a weapon,” said Bertarelli, who steered the losing boat.

Flying hulls is what makes multihulls so fast, because getting one or more floats out of the water reduces drag. The black-and-white trimaran did it with such amazing ease that the winning margin of 15 minutes, 28 seconds overshadowed an error that left the Americans stalled at the start of the 40-mile race on a windward-leeward loop.

BMW Oracle Racing is one win away from bringing the America’s Cup back to the United States for the first time since Dennis Conner lost it in 1995 to Team New Zealand and Russell Coutts, who is BMW Oracle Racing’s CEO. If the Americans win, the oldest trophy in international sports will belong to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Yacht Club.

Race 2 in the best-of-three series is scheduled for Sunday over a triangle course with 13-mile legs. The first leg is into the wind and the last two are across the wind, which will be tricky for the multihulls.

The sight of BMW Oracle’s windward hull flying some 20 feet over the waves, and of 30-year-old skipper Jimmy Spithill of Australia steering from his airborne position, has given the America’s Cup a whole new look. Even the center hull lifts out of the water when the beast gets going.

This is the first time multihulls have sailed against each other in the 159-year history of the America’s Cup. They are the byproduct of a 2-year court fight over rules, dates and the venue between Ellison and Bertarelli, two of the world’s richest men.

Each of the powerhouse sailing teams made a mistake in the first few minutes Friday.

The 90-by-90-foot American yacht zoomed into the starting box flying its windward and center hulls, on favored starboard tack, and Spithill steered straight at Alinghi. The Swiss wanted to cross in front of the Americans, but didn’t have enough speed and couldn’t get out of the way. Both boats had to tack. The Americans raised a protest flag, and the umpire in a trailing boat concurred, penalizing the Swiss and sticking them with a 270-degree turn.

Yet Spithill somehow stalled the boat over the line early with less than 15 seconds before the starting gun, and Alinghi sprinted ahead. Spithill had to go back and restart, leaving the U.S. boat 660 meters behind.

“We were in a pretty controlling position there, but as time went on, we kind of got ourselves stuck in irons,” Spithill said. “Today’s start kind of showed that both teams aren’t at their race-level preparations.”

The wing sail worked like the U.S. syndicate hoped it would and the Americans overtook Alinghi as the boats went into the wind. BMW Oracle Racing led by 3:21 at the windward mark. Showing remarkable speed sailing with the wind on the 20-mile run to the finish, it opened a lead of more than two miles as it sped along the Spanish coast.

The fastest, most technologically advanced boats in the 159-year history of the America’s Cup, they hit approximately 22 knots in just 6 or 7 knots of wind.

The brash Ellison has spared no expense, spending an estimated $200 million on everything from sailors to technology to lawyers.

It was the protracted, convoluted court case that gave the Americans time to develop the wing sail. It was 190 feet tall when it made its debut during sea trials in San Diego late last year. BMW Oracle Racing added a section after it arrived in Valencia.

Looking like an airplane wing, it has nine flaps on the trailing edge. It’s bigger than the wing of an Airbus A380, the world’s biggest passenger airliner. The spar allows the trimaran to accelerate and maneuver better than with a traditional soft-sail rig.

Thinking the breeze was going to drop off to about 3 knots, Ellison and Coutts, a three-time America’s Cup winner, hopped off the race boat and into a chase boat to lighten the load about 50 minutes before the start.

Coutts, who won the America’s Cup with Bertarelli in 2003 before having a falling out with the Swiss boss, is an engineer and had a hand in developing the wing.

“I said before the series, you won’t be able to draw conclusions from what happens in the first few minutes of these races. So, how about that wing?” Coutts said with a smile. “It looked pretty good from where I was watching today.”

Postponed Monday and Wednesday due to unfavorable conditions, the race ended just before dusk on a cold, clear day.

“After today, there’s one more feature we may have to add, and that’s a de-icing system,” Coutts said.

The Swiss have one day to regroup.

“They sailed from behind to in front us,” said Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth, a former crewmate of Coutts with Team New Zealand and Alinghi. “They certainly showed how fast they get their boat going. They couldn’t have come off the line in a worse position, and they wound up in a very strong position. When you’re sitting right in front of them and they sail up and around you, it’s speed. Finesse.”

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