Sailing near the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge, Emirates Team New Zealand's sleek catamaran turned back toward Alcatraz Island and accelerated almost as if skipper Dean Barker had flipped a switch, with its hulls lifting out of the water onto hydrofoils.
It was a picture-perfect example of what these new high-performance boats can do.
And this being the America's Cup, it just can't go on without some kind of controversy. The latest is swirling just below the very waves the fast cats skim across.
The Kiwis are protesting a rule change that ostensibly was made for safety reasons following the death of British sailing star Andrew Simpson on May 9 when rival challenger Artemis Racing capsized.
Kiwi boss Grant Dalton doesn't like the rules being changed so close to Sunday's opening race against Italy's Luna Rossa in the challenger trials, and suggests the changes could help defending champion Oracle Team USA.
Dalton went so far as to say that the America's Cup could become less and less popular in sailing-mad New Zealand, which held sailing's biggest prize from 1995-2003, “if these shenanigans keep on going.”
After Simpson was killed, regatta director Iain Murray made 37 safety recommendations, including a highly technical one regarding the size and location of rudder elevators, the winglets on the base of the rudder blades that help control the pitch of the boat.
Emirates Team New Zealand doesn't think Murray can unilaterally change the class rule without the unanimous consent of the competitors. Plus, it says it could lead to gruesome injuries because the rule now allows for the elevators to extend beyond the beam, or the width, of the boats.
In short, the New Zealanders say they built their boat under a set a rules that now has been changed, cutting into their competitive advantage. The Kiwis have mastered foiling better than anyone else and are considered to have the best chance of lifting the silver trophy off Oracle Team USA.
When the catamarans hit a certain speed, they lift out of the water and ride only on the two rudder elevators and a daggerboard protruding from the bottom of the leeward hull. Foiling reduces the drag on the boat and increases the speed dramatically.
“We've sailed for just under a year now with absolutely no problems and we've got all our engineering correct,” Dalton said Tuesday morning as the 72-foot catamaran was being lifted by a crane from its pier into the water.
“Really, we're actually the experts. There is no independent expert. How could there be? We're the only ones who've actually been doing it properly for so long. And we don't think it's necessary or safe at all,” Dalton said of the rules change.
Dalton said the Kiwis don't have rudder elevators that match the new rules, “and even if we had them, we wouldn't dare go out with an untested system and suddenly go racing. Why would you do that? It doesn't make sense.
“So you find with these boats is that everything you do, any small adjustment, has a waterfall effect somewhere else around the boat. It just does. I mean, you can move a switch on one side and it will adjust something on the other side. It just does. And changing the elevators at this stage, where we can't see any reason at all, will have an effect on something else, and it might just be simply when the guy eventually falls over the side and slides down there, and because he is going to … the elevator cuts him in half.”
An America's Cup spokesman said boats will be “street legal” whether they use the new rudder configuration or the old one. New Zealand's protest will be heard on Monday by an international jury.
Authorities haven't released the cause of Artemis' capsize. Last October, Oracle's first boat capsized in strong wind and current and was swept under the Golden Gate Bridge. The churning waves destroyed the high-tech wingsail, which looks and performs like an airplane wing. No one was injured in that wipeout.
Asked if the rule change was made to help Oracle, Dalton said: “I don't think it has, no. I don't think that for a second. Is it helping them as a kind of a byproduct? Yes it is.”
Oracle Team USA, owned by software billionaire Larry Ellison, recently began two-boat testing. It doesn't have to race until the opener of the 34th America's Cup match on Sept. 7 against the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup for challengers.
Dalton, who earlier this year criticized Ellison's vision for a grand regatta, said the New Zealand boat complies with Murray's other 36 safety recommendations, “yet we see the elevator as performance-enhancing for another team and completely unnecessary from a safety point of view.”
New Zealand tactician Ray Davies said the foils are “incredibly important. There's not much else in the water. Hull shapes are kind of irrelevant. Going downwind it's all about your elevators and your daggerfoil, and you have two elevators in the water, and they're absolutely critical.”
Dalton thinks the catamarans are too big and too expensive. It takes an hour and a half for a shore crew of 35 to 40 to prepare for launch from the pier, which sits between the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and AT&T Park. That includes lifting the 131-foot wingsail onto the platform and then lifting the boat into the water.
Dalton doesn't see the 72-foot cats being used beyond this regatta.
“They've got a bad stigma about them now, frankly, and so even in another venue they're just too expensive and I just can't see that,” he said.
Next door, Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena agreed with Dalton, saying the change to the rudder elevators is “nothing related to safety.”
Artemis has yet to launch its second boat. Its first boat was destroyed in the capsize that killed Simpson.