Inside the Most Dangerous Race on Water

Ferociously fast F1-style sailboats are making the venerable America’s Cup more popular—and deadlier—than ever.

It’s been called a “billionaire death race”—and features blazing fast, 45-foot catamaran sailboats inspired by Formula 1 cars and funded by megarich moguls who hate to lose.

The Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series—still reeling from the tragic death of a British sailor killed after his boat capsized in 2013—saw more wind-blown mayhem on Sunday as the winning team Artemis smashed into an umpire’s boat on the way to beating defending champion Oracle Team USA, bankrolled by software billionaire Larry Ellison. 

The five-man crew on Artemis, owned by Swedish oil baron Torbjorn Tornqvist, managed to repair their boat in time to surge to a dramatic victory in Bermuda’s Great Sound over second place Emirates Team New Zealand and third place Oracle, followed by Britain’s Land Rover, SoftBank Team Japan and Groupama Team France. The World Series regatta served as a thrilling warm-up to the biggest showdown in sailing—the 2017 America’s Cup.

WATCH:  Winning team Artemis smashes into a pink umpire’s boat in Bermuda. 

But you would have been forgiven for thinking that Sunday’s three 16-minute races were for the Cup itself, a gaudy chalice that is the oldest trophy in sports, named after a New York schooner called America that vanquished its British rivals in 1851.

Spectators filled hundreds of boats bobbing in Bermuda’s vibrant turquoise waters, ranging from humble fishing vessels to massive pleasure yachts. Well-heeled fans sipped Champagne and snapped iPhone pics as the high-tech racing boats capable of hitting 60 mph careened around the course, courtesy of rigid sails and blade-like carbon fiber hulls that fly above water on slim hydrofoils.

The high-tech catamaran racers fly over the water at speeds of up to 60 mph. 

“It’s a whole new game,” Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill told me before the regatta. “There’s real risk when the boats do two to three times the wind speed. It’s just like having a turbo, but there’s no brake on this boat. Once the wind is up, you just gotta hang on and try to get this thing around the course.”

The Australian sailing superstar famously led Oracle to victory in 2013 with the greatest comeback in America’s Cup history by winning eight straight races. That same year, British Olympic gold medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson died after the Artemis boat he was practicing on capsized and trapped him underwater for ten minutes. Spithill says that piloting this new breed of aerospace-grade sailboats is as dangerous as driving an F1 race car.

Sweden’s Artemis zips ahead of defending  America’s Cup champion Oracle, owned by software billionaire Larry  Ellison.

“I was speaking to some Formula 1 drivers, and they said it was kind of like back in the Senna days, where they had this massive amount of horsepower in the car and not really the safety limits set up,” Spithill says. “We were all kind of learning along the way, and we learned a lot from that tragedy.

“But yeah, mate, these things are like a race car—the harder you push, the faster you go. And anytime you cross the line, there’s going to be consequences.”

Artemis outpaces Oracle and Team New Zealand’s Emirates in Bermuda’s Great Sound. 

Nick Jones is a former coach for the Bermuda National Sailing Team, ex-professional rugby player, and a lifelong Bermudian. He commentated on the regatta action via microphone on the two-story chartered yacht where I watched the races from. Jones, whose stocky frame and creased features recall a more menacing Gordon Ramsay, says he’s a “traditionalist” when it comes to sailing, and prefers the slower, pre-catamaran days.

But like everyone else, he attributes the racier design to a renewed interest in the genteel sport, as hazardous as that transformation may be. “You’re on the course, you take the risk,” Jones says with a Bermudian twang as we cruise past a cluster of boats crowding Hamilton Harbor. “It’s the same as being a Formula 1 driver. That’s part of sports, and that’s just how it works, unfortunately.”

Don’t expect winning-obsessed owners like Ellison, and the team of engineers and designers that work for him, to back off their relentless drive to build faster and faster sailboats. America’s third richest man (behind Bill Gates and Warren Buffet) has spent hundreds of millions to help Oracle win back-to-back America’s Cup titles in 2010 and 2013, a relatively painless investment considering his estimated $43 billion fortune.

When Charlie Rose asked Ellison in 2013 why he was so driven to win the Cup twice in a row, Ellison replied, “It’s funny, because I realized after losing twice that my personality wouldn’t allow me to quit while losing. And then after winning the America’s Cup, I discovered my personality doesn’t allow me to quit while winning! I don’t smoke, but I do sail.”

Last weekend’s loss is sure to light a fire under Oracle to keep sailing’s crown jewel in America, where it belongs. 

Some things never change: As tradition dictates, Artemis sailors spray magnums of America’s Cup sponsor Moet & Chandon  Champagne all over the winning boat. 

Photos by Ricardo Pinto & Sander van der Borch