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America's Cup stirs controversy as it ventures into new waters

Workers in black jackets — many of them designers and boat builders — scurry about the Oracle Team USA headquarters on a weekday afternoon as Russell Coutts surveys the scene.

The way he sees it, this place could save the sport of sailing.

“Let’s set the record straight,” Coutts says. “The America’s Cup was dying.”

After a storied career at sea, where he ranked among the most successful skippers in Cup history, the New Zealander now serves as chief executive for the Oracle racing team. With a mandate from owner and tech billionaire Larry Ellison, he is guiding an effort to reinvent sailing for an X Games generation.

It works like this: As defending champ, Oracle got to decide the site for the next race and the type of boats. So the 2013 America’s Cup shifted from open sea to the San Francisco Bay, where spectators can watch from shore.

Gone are the conventional monohulled yachts, replaced by sleek catamarans with rigid sails that look like a jet wing. These AC72s can reach unprecedented speeds, rising out of the water to skim along on hydrofoils.

“They are insane boats to sail,” says Chris Draper, the helmsman on an Italian boat vying for the title. “I cannot explain it … an amazing amount of fun.”

But not everyone is thrilled.

Traditionalists scoff at the technology, so expensive that only three challengers have entered the competition. Even worse, two training accidents — one of which killed a sailor — have raised concerns that Oracle’s experiment might self-destruct before the September finals.

“They’ve talked about NASCAR on the water,” says Roger Vaughan, who has written about the America’s Cup since the 1960s. “I don’t think that is working out.”

The America’s Cup has spent much of its 162-year history at the fringes of mainstream sport, dismissed as a dalliance for the supremely rich.

Some might argue that, since a burst of notoriety in the late 1980s, when the U.S. uncharacteristically lost and scrambled to recover, the event has drifted toward oblivion. Ellison — who did not respond to an interview request — wanted to change all that after winning in 2010.

The Cup was not a complete stranger to progress. At one point, the boats were downsized from more than 100 feet long. More recently, multihulled crafts entered the scene.

“These things are fun,” Vaughan said. “It was a natural evolution.”

But the AC72s — at 72 feet long and 131 feet tall — represented a quantum leap.

Initially, nobody intended for the massive boats to “foil” — rising above the surface as if by magic — but the New Zealand team discovered this ability during testing and everyone followed suit.

“It’s like a turbo boost,” Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said. “You just sort of hold on and the whole thing takes off.”

At speeds exceeding 50 miles an hour, the AC72s are blurry fast for sailing. Equally important to Cup organizers, they can race in light or strong winds, which cuts down on weather delays and makes the competition more television-friendly.

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Sailing-Luna Rossa sweeps Artemis at America's Cup

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug 10 (Reuters) – Italy’s Luna Rossa sailed into the final of the America’s Cup challenger series on Saturday, completing a 4-0 sweep over the grief-stricken Swedish syndicate Artemis.

Needing to win Saturday’s fourth race at San Francisco Bay to keep the best-of-seven semi-final series going, Artemis made a great start, taking the early lead with their high-tech 72-foot catamaran.

But their joy was short-lived when they were penalized for touching the Italian boat during the pre-start. The penalty led a television cameraman to call the Swedish team, which lost its teammate during a May training exercise, “jinxed.”

Artemis landed two more penalties for sailing out of bounds during the race, effectively ending their hopes of winning and allowing Luna Rossa to cruise to victory by two minutes and 11 seconds.

With the win, Luna Rossa advanced to the final of the Louis Vuitton Cup against Emirates Team New Zealand.

Their best-of-13 series, which will decide the challenger to compete against defending champion Oracle Team USA for the America’s Cup, starts August 17.

The Kiwis easily defeated Luna Rossa in the round-robin preliminary series to go straight through to the final, but Luna Rossa helmsman Chris Draper said the Italians were performing better now.

“We’ve improved tons,” Draper said. “We’ve all seen that the Kiwis are very, very solid. These boats are pretty humbling. Fingers crossed we can be as competitive as possible.”

Software billionaire Larry Ellison’s Oracle team won the Cup in 2010 and with it the right to set the rules and choose the venue, the windy San Francisco Bay, for this year’s competition.

For Artemis, Saturday’s defeat marked the end of a tragic campaign. British Olympic gold medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed in a training accident on May 9.

The accident destroyed the Artemis boat and wing. The team had planned to sail a second catamaran but changes had to be made to it, a new wing had to be built, and the crew needed to feel safe again.

Consequently, the team skipped the round-robin stage and almost missed the entire event.

“It’s been a terrible period for the team,” Artemis skipper Iain Percy, Simpson’s teammate and best friend, said. “We destroyed all our equipment. We had a huge amount of work to do.

“I’m still in disbelief about how well our team has done. For us to be out there racing was our victory.”

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