Not your grandfather’s America’s Cup

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(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

When did sailors start wearing helmets?

If you haven't been watching the America's Cup – and odds are you haven't – then you've missed the transformation of a stodgy old race into an X Game.

Yes, the America's Cup – to be decided on Wednesday in a final, winner-take all race between the United States and New Zealand – has become an extreme sport, complete with breakneck speeds (on water anyway), whip-fast turns and danger, so much so that one sailor has already died.

These are the lengths to which the sport has gone to in order to attract an audience that, for the most part, isn't there. Because really, where's the excitement in watching a boat jibe, whatever that means?

Well, the answer is in the AC72 – a sort of Formula 1 car on water. Gone are the single-hull Edsels of years past, replaced by dual-hulled Ferraris that sport 131-foot sails and foils – L-shaped fins – that actually lift the catamaran entirely out of the water. The result: speeds upwards of 50 m.p.h. and, subsequently, the necessity for helmets.

"Ultimately, these things fly like an aircraft in terms of wings," Adam May, an analyst for the Sweden's Artemis Racing, told the Associated Press. "Water is so much denser than air that you can do that with very small wings. The lift and how it's generated is like an aircraft. The takeoff part is the easier part. If you've got enough power from the sail – your engine – effectively, you can get the boat to enough speed to take off. The hard part is how you fly it through a very narrow height range, how you keep it at a certain height."

Therein lies the danger. A boat rising out of the water creates a scenario where it can fall back in, and if done at the wrong angle can nosedive, causing the boat to topple over. This is apparently what happened to the Artemis Racing boat during practice in May, an accident that claimed the life of Andrew Simpson, a British sailor and two-time Olympic medalist.

Some have called into question the safety of this kind of sailing. Italian sailor Luca Devoti told SkyNews the boats "are pushing the boundaries of the sport and going into unknown territory."

"I don't know what they are going to do from now onwards because this brings a real issue which is the safety of the sailors," he said. "It is not for me to say, but everybody could foresee this disaster had a great chance of happening."

Three months later, the America's Cup is pushing toward one of the great finishes in its 162-year history, as the American team, financed by billionaire Larry Ellison, has come all the way back from an 8-1 deficit to force a Game 7 of sorts – a winner-take all race Wednesday in San Francisco Bay that will decide who claims the cup.

The seven straight wins by Oracle Team USA puts the Americans on the verge of one of the great comebacks in sports history, the Kiwis on the brink of one of the all-time chokes and the America's Cup in a spotlight brighter than it could have ever hoped for – with or without the AC72.

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