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Massive boats finally assume stage

VALENCIA, Spain — On a recent visit to his native Australia, America's Cup helmsman Jimmy Spithill squeezed in time to get his pilot's license.

It was a keen decision considering he has his hands on the wheel of one of the most mind-blowing sailboats ever built.

When the best-of-three 33rd America's Cup begins Monday in this Mediterranean port, weather permitting, the boats will be the stars.

And can these beasts fly.

Spithill will steer USA, a 90- by 90-foot trimaran representing American challenger BMW Oracle Racing, based in San Francisco and owned by software magnate Larry Ellison. It will try to wrest the oldest trophy in international sports away from Swiss two-time defending champion Alinghi, whose equally massive catamaran, Alinghi 5, will be steered by syndicate boss Ernesto Bertarelli, also an accomplished catamaran racer, instead of St. Petersburg's Ed Baird. The helmsman in Alighi's last Cup defense, Baird is primarily a monohull sailor, so Alinghi hired multihull specialists Alain Gautier and Loick Peyron to round out the team.

These are the fastest, most powerful and extreme boats in the 159 years of the America's Cup. When they hook into even the slightest breeze, their windward hulls fly off the water by up to 20 feet.

Capable of sailing at up to three times the speed of the wind, USA has flirted with 50 knots. Conventional America's Cup yachts average 11 or 12 knots under good conditions.

BMW Oracle Racing kept pushing the limits late last year when it added a radical wing sail, which towers 223 feet off the deck and is bigger than the wing of an Airbus A380, the world's biggest passenger airliner.

The scale of these boats is off the charts. Plop USA on the infield at Yankee Stadium and it would cover each base and home plate. Lay the wing sail on an NFL field and it would stretch from one goal line to just past the opposite 26-yard line.

Alinghi 5's trampoline, the mesh material that serves as the deck, is twice as big as a tennis court. Its mast is as tall as a 20-story building, and a crane is required to lift the furled, 1,300-pound mainsail off the boat.

"It's just stunning," Baird said. "The boats are as wide as container ships. They blast along, all the time, at 20 to 30 to 40 knots. I mean, they just go fast. And that's in the most moderate conditions."

Massive boats finally assume stage 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 9:21pm]
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