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America’s Cup Runneth Over

Emirates New Zealand, one of the contenders for America's Cup, in San Francisco Bay.
Emirates New Zealand, one of the contenders for America’s Cup, in San Francisco Bay.

This summer’s 34th competition offers the best spectator viewing in the race’s 162-year history

By John Grossmann

Summer in San Francisco, always a perfect time for a planned or spur-of-the-moment escape from hazy, hot weather in most of the nation, boasts an even greater allure this year.  Starting July 5th, and running deep into September, the city by the bay will host the 34th America’s Cup, a storied competition older than the modern Olympics, and do so in unprecedented fashion. 

All previous America’s Cup courses have been set a mile or more off-shore, but this year’s qualifying rounds for the challenging teams and finals, pitting the semi-final winner against defending champion Oracle Team USA, are being held right in San Francisco Bay–providing not only the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz and the city’s skyline as backdrops, but for the first time in America’s Cup history, offering intimate, on shore views of a competition that some are comparing to “NASCAR or Formula One on water.”

To date, only those aboard boats far from shore in the six previous host cities (New York, New York; Newport, Rhode Island; Fremantle, Australia; San Diego, California; Auckland, New Zealand; and Valencia, Spain) have watched America’s Cup competition with the naked eye.  This summer, however, glimpses of the race will be possible even from many a San Francisco hilltop.  On Nob Hill, from a coveted window seat at the 19th floor Top of the Mark at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel (www.intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com), or from one of the hotel’s even-numbered 18th floor suites, you’ll catch a surprisingly good view of the colorful sails of the high-tech catamarans–in part, due to allowable design choices invoked by the current cup holder, Oracle’s owner Larry Ellison. 

Oracle, Larry Elliosn's defending boat in America's Cup in San Francisco this summer.
Oracle, Larry Ellison’s defending boat in America’s Cup in San Francisco this summer.

 In a controversial move, Ellison doubled the size of the boats. This year’s 72-foot catamarans will fly carbon fiber sails as high as a 13-story building. Accordingly, the costs for a country to field a challenging team have likewise skyrocketed, to $8 million per boat and many times that overall. This explains why only three teams will vie in the early round robin races known as the Louis Vuitton Cup to face Oracle Team USA in September’s best of 17 races:  Sweden’s Artemis Racing, Emirates Team New Zealand, and Italy’s Luna Rossa.  Though fielding fewer boats, this year’s America’s Cup will not lack visual excitement.  The first of four turns on the course will swing the speeding sailboats less than two hundred yards from shore, hard by some of the bleachers erected for the occasion.  Here, by the bay, the race will be seen as never before.

“I think you’re going to appreciate the size and scale and speed of the boats a lot better in person than you will on television,” says Peter Rusch, an America’s Cup spokesman.  “It’s one thing to watch NFL games on television, and you can argue you get a better view with instant replays and such, but if you’re close up at an NFL stadium and your hear the collisions and the grunts and see the size of the players and the speed, that’s an appreciation that television just doesn’t convey.”

The boats, Rusch says, will be traveling at nearly 50 miles per hour, close to highway speed.  “No [other] boats do that,” says Rusch.  “To see that in person—the spray coming off—and see the size. These wind sails are 130 feet tall. A major turn requires massive coordination among all 11 crewmembers. These boats are also 60 feet wide—and when the boat makes its turn, these guys have to switch sides—so they’re running across the trampoline that connects the two hulls.

Luna Rossa, the Italian contender in America's Cup
Luna Rossa, the Italian contender in America’s Cup

“It’s really a huge intersection between the cutting edge technology that’s used to design and engineer and build these boats and the skill and athleticism of the sailors in harnessing that power. The boats generate an incredible amount of power and are incredibly complicated to turn around the corners.  It’s not possible unless you’ve got the very best people doing it. It’s a little like a Formula One race car.  You can drive a five speed all you want, but there are very few people who could get into a Formula One car and go around those tracks even at a quarter of the speed the race car drivers do.   These boats are the same.  You could take 11 of the best club sailors. They wouldn’t even be able to move the boat, essentially.”

Not surprisingly, seats in many of the best viewing spots are selling quickly.  To view the race schedules and various seating choices as well as performers (Sting, Steely Dan, Weezer and others) appearing in a waterside America’s Cup stadium go to: www.americascup.com/experience. For those thinking of a San Francisco trip and taking in a race or two, here’s a preview of some of the viewing options:

On high, far from shore

Book a room at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel atop Knob Hill, on the California Street cable car line.  Built in 1926 on the site of the mansion of railroad magnet Mark Hopkins, founder of the line that would become the Southern Pacific, the hotel offers several high-floor suites with good, if distant, views of much of the race waters.  More panoramic views await higher up at the iconic Top of the Mark sky lounge, famous for its 100 different martinis. 

 On shore, in America’s Cup grandstands

The Deck, with 1,250 seats, will offer the most desirable and expensive tickets, with prices starting at $25 early in July, rising to  $130 for the Cup Finals. “This is our highest-end grandstand location,” says Ryan Carroll, a spokesman for America’s Cup Spectator Experiences. “They’ll have the nicest seats, with a back and armrest, and there will be a roped off area behind with a private lounge and concessions and private restrooms.  Plus here, you can take alcohol back to your seats.”

Race Course Bleachers.  Only available for the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals (starting August 17th) through the America’s Cup Finals.  Even without upgraded seats and private concessions,  these tickets will be snapped up by avid race fans, as they’ll offer the closest shoreline views of the competition.  Prices start at $70.

West Grandstands.  Also available only for the Louis Vuitton Finals and America’s Cup Finals.  Prices will start at $50.  After the Race Course Bleachers, these 2,500 seats will provide the next best view of the first turn.

East Grandstands. These 1,250 seats will be the most affordable America’s Cup tickets.  Starting at $15 for early July races, they’ll have access to a lounge with private concessions and restrooms.  The views will be similar to those of the adjacent Deck seats, but lack the extra amenities. 

On shore, atop Pier 39

These rooftop accommodations for 750 will offer the most luxurious and costliest single day tickets.  Prices start at $300, beginning with the Cup Finals in September.  The admission ticket covers all food and beverages, including an open bar. The viewing deck will have a bar and food service, lounge chairs, and TVs broadcasting live coverage and commentary of the race.     

On the water but docked.  Spectators can also head for Pier 45 and board the old naval warship, SS Jeremiah O’Brien, which served at Normandy.  Ticket prices start at $110.  The ship, which is now a museum, will remain docked, but offers good views of turns two and four, not to mention a head-on view of Alcatraz. Below deck, there’ll be concessions and monitors for viewing the race.  It will not be ADA accessible.

Out on the bay, aboard a motorboat or sailboat

The most intimate race views of all can be enjoyed out on the bay, literally on the periphery of the course, aboard a small flotilla of race-accredited sailboats and motorboats.  Prices start higher than for all but the Pier 39 Rooftop experience, but boats positioned near turns two, three, and four will have across-the-boulevard-like views of the most riveting action on the course.  Options range from a 12-person catamaran and a small motor yacht for 16 to 20 to retired ferryboats.  Other choices include FDR’s private yacht, The Potomac, and a replica of the schooner America, which won the first America’s Cup race in 1861 against the British around the Isle of Wight. For all the on water choices go to:  www.americascup.com/en/experience/spectator-tickets/on-water-viewing

grossmann  John Grossmann has written about food and travel for Gourmet, Cigar Aficionado, Saveur, and SKY. He was a finalist in the food journalist category of the 2010 Le Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards. He is the co-author, with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, of the book One Square Inch of Silence, (Free Press).


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  1. mikey
    June 18, 2013 at 10:17 pm — Reply

    Watching these boats fly a hull is amazing.

  2. Dori
    June 21, 2013 at 12:52 am — Reply

    We live in the SF Bay Area and watched the races last summer in the smaller boats and loved every minute. Even from the shore you can see the action clearly and at times they came so close to the pier you could hear the calls from the crews. The larger boats have been practicing and are breathtaking. We are looking forward to the races this year.

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