SAN FRANCISCO — When America's Cup sailors said their fast new catamarans were cutting-edge and exciting, they were factoring in inevitable capsizes.
Monday afternoon on breezy San Francisco Bay, it was no less than one of the most dominant skippers in America's Cup history, Russell Coutts, whose 45-foot catamaran went head-over-heels in a spectacular wipeout.
Grinder Shannon Falcone was thrown through the wing sail and into the chilly water, and another crewman was thrown into the water. Falcone was examined by paramedics on the dock and taken to the hospital for precautionary X-rays. Sailors wear crash helmets and foul-weather gear when sailing the speedy boats.
Coutts, the CEO of defending champion Oracle Racing, was racing skipper Jimmy Spithill as part of a media day to publicize the U.S. debut of the new boats. His boat was bearing away during the prestart maneuver when the bows buried in a wave and the cat lifted into the air and went over before coming to rest on its side.
The catamaran was pulled upright by a support boat.
Coutts almost capsized on Friday, the second day of Oracle's first testing session in the new cats on San Francisco Bay. The AC45s debuted earlier this year in New Zealand, where two capsized. The AC45s will be used for the AC World Series this year and next. The 2013 America's Cup will be sailed in 72-footers, which will be faster and more powerful.
Sailors have known that getting up to speed in the new catamarans is going to be tricky and possibly dangerous.
Coutts, a four-time America's Cup winner, was prophetic when he and Spithill spoke at a news conference earlier in the day about the risk-reward of sailing the cats.
"They're very demanding but also incredibly exciting," said Spithill, a 31-year-old Australian who is the youngest skipper to win the America's Cup.
Said Coutts, a 49-year-old New Zealander: "Sometimes it helps to be a little younger, you know. You've got to get to the point of finding the edge and not going over the edge, and sometimes you're going to go over the edge. That applies not only in a sailing sense — we're challenged as sailors like never before, probably, in these boats — but in the design sense. These guys will tell you, that's one of the big considerations in the 72. Because the closer you design it to the edge, the faster it will go. But you don't want to go over the edge. Or preferably not over the edge."
After sailing a monstrous, space-age trimaran to defeat Alinghi of Switzerland in 2010 to win the oldest trophy in international sports, Oracle — owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison — decided to contest the next America's Cup in catamarans on shorter courses to make the sport more TV-friendly. The cats replace the plodding monohulls that were used from 1992-2007.
"It's a complete change," Spithill said. "I think if you ask the average person about America's Cup, they think of guys sitting on the side of a monohull yacht, a heavy displacement yacht, going quite slowly around the course. These boats are the complete opposite. Everyone is wearing helmets for a reason. There's a significant amount of risk. They're probably one of the most athletic boats I've seen for the crew to sail. There's also a huge reward for sailing them well. They're the fastest boats out there at the moment. To get the best out of these boats, you have to push."
The Oracle sailors joked about having an "old guy boat" and a "young guy boat."
"We're trying to get comfortable with these boats. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks and I can tell you, I'm not sure if I'll ever get comfortable with these boats," Coutts said. "Anyway, I'm giving it a go. Basically, Jimmy and the guys are way better than we are in our boat right now. I'm pretty sure Jimmy and J.K. (tactician John Kostecki) get amused when we screw up. They had grins all over their face the other day when we almost capsized. Jimmy actually said to me, 'It's a pity you didn't capsize.' I don't know. we'll be certainly duking it out and trying to beat the hell out of each other just to try and get these guys ready to go and race the cup."
Kostecki grew up sailing in the Bay Area.
"If these things are that much fun, the 72s are going to be wild," Kostecki said.
The combination of the fast catamarans and San Francisco Bay is sure to be spectacular. The bay provides a natural amphitheater, ringed with famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, the Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower.