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When America’s Cup sailors suit up for battle, they ditch the Topsiders and khaki shorts

2021 March 1

Last weekend, with a fine breeze blowing, I decided to take the Laser out. Me to She Who Must Be Obeyed: “Hey, honey, do you know where my oxygen tank and mouthpiece are?”

SWMBO to me: “Where they always are. In the hall closet with your helmet, armored suit with the two knives and your goggles.” 

Me to SWMBO: “I’m looking for the heart rate monitor too.”

SWMBO to me (dripping with scorn) “It’s still in your closet,” which clearly lays the blame for a cubbyhole that would do justice to a packrat.

Does this seem a little odd for an outing on a Laser?

It must be trickle-down from the America’s Cup to the world of real sailing, just like the rear-view mirrors in today’s cars that were a trickle-down from early 1900s race cars, where drivers could see competitors sneaking up on them. 

Today’s America’s Cup sailors are far removed from what I think of as “real America’s Cup” sailors, who generally wore deep tans, khaki shorts, polo shirts, sailmaker’s caps and ratty Topsiders. Just like most sailors today.

But today, America’s Cup sailors suit up like astronauts going to the moon, and they walk the docks looking like modern gladiators in their outfits. No, wait, gladiators didn’t wear this much. Tan lines today? Maybe a little raccoon-line around the edges of the goggles.

OK, I’ve tried to stay away from commenting on the America’s Cup, not just because the only resemblance to classic America’s Cup regattas is the name, but because it bears so little resemblance to real sailing. Sure, they still do it on the water (that will probably change soon too). But watching some of the Cup crews waddle up the dock pushed me over the edge.

The boats are no longer the graceful and traditional (but heavy) lead mines of the 12-Meters or even the IACC 82-footers. They more resemble the water strider or skeeter bugs we used to chase as kids on a pond edge. Frankly, I think they’re kind of creepy looking, but I’m not into horror or sci-fi movies either. No America’s Cup foiling wall calendars for me, thanks.

In fact, I find it amusing that Terry Hutchinson, skipper of American Magic (the remaining U.S. entry), routinely refers to Patriot, the team’s AC75 foiling yacht as “the thing,” as in “It’s hard to get the thing on foils.” So much for the traditional “she” of yachts. Sigh….

So, back to my outfit for Laser sailing. The various competitors in the 2021 Cup edition walk down the dock looking like the offspring of a motorcycle racer and an NFL linebacker, perhaps with a little SWAT team tossed in.

Starting at the top, they have a helmet. Now, let me be clear: I’m not against helmets. In sports car racing, we didn’t call them “brain buckets” for nothing, and that very fragile, three-pound (less on some of my crew) organ doesn’t like to get banged around. I grew up sailing 8-foot prams with nothing more than a soggy baseball cap for protection, but I applaud the O’pen Bic class for making helmets a requirement for youngsters enjoying this class, and MIT has long required helmets for its college sailors.

But, of course, the America’s Cup helmets take things to a new level. Not only are they lightweight and breathable, but they incorporate a communication system. Depending on the team, some only allow the skipper and tactician to talk (while the rest of the crew listens) while other more democratic teams allow the crew to contribute. I find the idea of not having your crew talk back to be quite appealing.

Their sailing “suits” start with body armor, either built-in or inserted into dedicated pockets as needed. These aren’t the knee pads that I used to wear when working the foredeck on big boats and which I could buy for a couple of bucks in the basketball section of my local sporting goods store. No, these are highly refined pieces of armor, which is a code word for expensive.

Since these America’s Cup boats have a bunch of grinders, the suits need to get rid of heat quickly. These guys aren’t grinding on winches, though, but on handles to pump the hydraulic oil that allows the foils to raise and lower as well as trim the sails. The old days of a couple of guys with elbows flying on a coffee-grinder winch during a tacking duel are so 10 minutes ago. 

The suits are made of a sophisticated material that remains flexible but, on impact, somehow links itself together to guard against blows. You see, these new foiling “things” are getting up into the 50-knot range (which for some of us are freeway speeds). 

When the crew doesn’t get things quite right, these AC75 foilers can capsize or nosedive quite spectacularly and, without seat belts, that’s like rear-ending a stopped 18-wheeler. Yes, padding is essential. Besides, those who have ridden aboard these spidery foilers say that maneuvers, even slight changes of direction at speed, are like being rattled around in a can. 

OK, helmet, check. Armor, check. The sailing suit also carries a tank of emergency oxygen, which became de rigueur after a fatality in the early America’s Cup catamarans when a crewman was trapped underwater. A breathing hose loops over the shoulder from a back tank, and it can be grabbed quickly if the skipper performs a major no-no and crashes the thing. (See how quickly I picked up the lingo?)

Let’s see, a knife. This is in a downward-facing pocket that seems designed for quick access in a beer bar knife fight. Most crew carry a straight-edged knife for cutting away lines, while some like two knives to include a hook-shaped one for pull-slicing. 

That suit also has a pocket for the “bio-harness,” which measures heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature. This data is downloaded after the race by the crew trainers but, during a race, each grinder’s heart rate reads out in front of him, either on a tablet or a wrist monitor. Since many of the pumping crew are basically machines (no sailing experience necessary just serious muscles!), they have a goal that keeps their heart at 75% to 99% maximum rate. Yeah, me either.

There’s a “hydration pack” as well, because these guys are dehydrating at a huge rate and this has a shoulder tube to slurp water. Well, I think it’s water. It might well be a gin-and-tonic, which would be my choice. Of course, it’s New Zealand so it might be a Speight’s beer. The races are short, so it shouldn’t get too warm. Oh, wait. One of the boats is British. They like warm beer.  

Then there is a life jacket to top off everything. It doesn’t actually provide much flotation: just 50N (Newtons), which wouldn’t be much for a kid. Most Coast Guard-approved PFDs start at 100N and go up to 275N. What the Cup life jacket really seems to do is smooth things down. They’re streamlining the crew, most of whose heads barely peek above the rail.

Photos show the crew in wind tunnels testing various life jacket designs, while smoke flows over them to study the efficiency of each version. I suspect that if I were to step into such a smoke chamber wearing my usual dinghy-sailing outfit of life jacket, my sailing cap and my comfy jacket, the scientists would collapse and fall about laughing. It would not be a pretty sight, smokewise.

The last thing on the list are the shoes or booties, which are high-topped for maximum support. But remember—no one on these boats has to sprint up to the foredeck and get the spinnaker ready, or even move out of their preordained positions. So these remind me of what we used to call “felony flyers” in my neighborhood: high-topped Keds for outrunning cops.

The bottom line is that this is an outfit that Darth Vader would covet. Sir Thomas Lipton, who sailed in a suit with vest and bow tie, is twirling in his grave.

But the crew outfits are just a microcosm of how irrelevant the America’s Cup has become to real sailing. It has nothing to do with the rest of us out here. There are no sail changes, no crew work except mindless pumping, no spinnaker sets, no one scrambling up a mast to clear a halyard. These boats are mutations.

But then, the America’s Cup is all about TV and thrill sports. It’s for those who watch the Indy 500 or Daytona hoping to see a crash. It is reality television at its worst. But then, when break dancing and skateboarding became Olympic sports, I should have seen the writing on the wall. It’s all about TV.

Aw, the heck with it. I’ll just grab my shorts and T-shirt and go enjoy sailing. I can’t find any of my trick gear anyway.