America's Cup on the bay will be arena sailing
In the previous 33 America's Cup races, the greatest danger was the risk of getting the Christopher Cross song "Sailing" stuck in your brain.
Starting now, America's Cup racing is different. To picture the 2013 race on San Francisco Bay, as compared with all Cup races to date, imagine the Kentucky Derby being run in a barn, over hurdles, with horses geeked on steroids.
More excitement, more danger, a little edgier.
On Monday, the Oracle Racing team, which will sail the boat representing the United States, introduced itself to the Bay Area at the Golden Gate Yacht Club, and introduced its boats to the bay waters.
The message the team members were most eager to get across to the public is that this won't be your father's (or great-great-grandfather's) America's Cup.
The boats in 2013 will be more than twice as fast as the previous generation of boats, and the bay is a small, enclosed course, filled with obstacles and buffeted by strong winds.
Result: More speed, more risks, more danger.
As if to prove their point, the team flipped one of its boats. "Scuttled" is the yachting term. Or "pitch-poled." When a 45-foot-long boat flips, crew members go swimming with the porpoises. One crew member sustained bruised ribs. It was the first splash hit of the yearlong testing.
These are test boats. The actual race boats - which are in the design stage and will be unveiled a year from now - will be 72 feet long. Flip one of those babies and crew members will go flying, scoring field goals over the Golden Gate Bridge.
"People think this is just 'Grab your blazer, sit on the boat, someone hands you a gin and tonic,' " said Oracle Racing's James Spithill, the skipper of the American team who is from Australia. "This is a complete change, a lot of action on the water, a lot of risk out there.
"If you made a mistake in the old boats, you might slow up and rip a sail. In these boats, you'll capsize. ... You'd pay for mistakes (in previous Cups), but nothing like you'll pay out here."
Maybe Chad Ochocinco would like to join the crew.
The old boats topped out at about 14 knots. The new boats will be pushing 35.
"In the old boats," said Oracle Racing CEO Russell Coutts, whose boat flipped Monday, "you could see the start of the race, go away, have lunch, come back, and you wouldn't have missed much."
Our dinky little bay adds to the risk, danger and beauty of the 2013 race. Most previous races were held on open ocean.
"Here, you're reaching boundaries pretty quickly," said Coutts, who hails from New Zealand. (Yes, there are some Americans on the American America's Cup team.) "You run out of water very quickly. ...
"You're much closer to shore than ever in an America's Cup. It's much more skillful, there are a whole lot of variables and you have to react quicker. We're going to have to learn to think a lot quicker."
With the boats running faster and in a smaller space, chances of collisions increase. If they can design the boats to burst into flames upon contact, we've got ourselves a sport, sport.
This generation of boats is catamarans with hard, winged sails. In the old single-hull boats, heavy ballast kept 'em from flipping. The new boats need no ballast, so they are much lighter, their anti-capsize protection coming from the wide stance of the multihulls.
The Oracle team took its two practice boats out for a spin, zipping and careening through the choppy bay waters, dodging much smaller and much, much slower boats, occupants of which might have thought they were being attacked by monsters from Planet Oracle.
The Oracle folks all say they're charmed and intrigued by a race in the cozy confines of San Francisco Bay.
Along with a shorter and more compact course, the racers will confront obstacles: bridges, islands, Ghirardelli Square ...
Not only will the bay offer a greater challenge, it also will provide much better spectator viewing than do offshore races. I'm hoping to rent out a guard tower on Alcatraz.
So as it turns out, San Francisco isn't merely hosting the America's Cup in 2013. San Francisco is saving the competition, which started in 1851, from dying of boredom.
It's not me saying that, like some anti-sailing zealot. It's a fellow named Bob Fisher, the sport's leading historian and author.
"It was in danger of being stagnated," Fisher said Monday of the America's Cup as an event. "This (San Francisco Bay venue) lights it up."
Or, as Spithill said of San Francisco, "It really does tickle all the boxes, in our mind."
Which makes you wonder why it took the Cup people 159 years to get out of the ocean and get their fat assets to San Francisco.
"It makes no sense getting out on the ocean," Spithill said.
One insider said Monday that there is already talk of San Francisco hosting a subsequent America's Cup. Apparently somebody tipped off these guys that we have decent restaurants.
See photos of the flipped boat on Page A1, online at sfgate.com or on The Chronicle's new iPad app.
E-mail Scott Ostler at firstname.lastname@example.org.