The Billionaire Backers Behind The America’s Cup

America's Cup

The British Land Rover BAR team.

Flying boats, Champagne, carnage, and a lot of billionaires, as The America’s Cup splashes down in Bermuda.

Two boats streak across the horizon, skimming the azure waters of Bermuda’s Great Sound. From the deck of a yacht anchored nearby, the boats appear to cut through the waves as effortlessly as a knife through cake. The two vessels, one flying a Union Jack, the other sailing under Kiwi colours, barely touch the water’s surface, neck-and-neck as they approach the final marker. Then, a decisive victory as the British ship skates across the finish. A roar erupts from the deck, flags wave, corks pop and the triumphant sound of a ship’s horn echoes across the Sound. This match is over, but the 35th America’s Cup — the oldest trophy in organised sport — has only just begun.

The America’s Cup draws comparisons with Formula One for its fast-paced action, cutting-edge technology and exorbitant costs. This season marks 166 years since the first cup was won by the schooner America in a race against the British fleet around the Isle of Wight. In the century-and-a-half that followed, the America’s Cup has become not only a testing ground for the world’s fastest sailboats, but an irresistible prize for the sailors and billionaires who covet the bragging rights that come with it.

This year’s competition sees Oracle Team USA, funded by US software tycoon Larry Ellison, defending the trophy against teams flying British, French, Japanese, Swedish and New Zealand colours. This is the third Cup for Ellison, whose 88m superyacht Musashi is moored alongside his US headquarters. He’s joined by Torbjorn Tornqvist, Swedish owner of Artemis Racing and Masayoshi Son, Japanese banking CEO behind Softbank Team Japan.

The boats competing in the 35th America’s Cup have as much in common with the average sailboat as a child’s tricycle does with a Ferrari. Fifty-foot carbon-fibre-hulled catamarans, each is powered by a 24m-tall wingsail, which, when used to its full potential, can push the boat to more than three times the speed of the prevailing winds. They are light, fast and notoriously difficult to sail. “These are the most technically advanced boats in the world,” says Martin Whitmarsh, former CEO of McLaren who now heads the British Land Rover BAR team. BAR’s boat, skippered by champion Olympic sailor Sir Ben Ainslie, is the result of some 50,000 man-hours of design and 35,000 of construction. Dubbed Rita, Ainslie’s boat hit 87km/h in training, an astonishing feat even by America’s Cup standards.

Thanks to hydrofoils — essentially underwater wings providing lift — America’s Cup boats actually fly over the surface of the water, greatly reducing drag and making them capable of incredible speeds. “On a good day, these boats will cross the first mark, and reach the finish line without their hulls touching the water,” says Whitmarsh. “It’s a totally new development in sailing.”

Throughout the month of June, these crews will do battle on the water, fighting through broken masts, hull-shattering collisions and dangerously high winds, pushing themselves and their boats to their utmost limits. While technology has changed over the last 166 years, the cup itself remains very much the same, an ultimate object of desire for those who dream of sea, speed and glory.

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