When he jumps aboard his high-performance catamaran, America's Cup champion skipper Jimmy Spithill is wearing his game face as well as equipment that can help save his life out on San Francisco Bay.
America's Cup sailors already wore crash helmets and life vests after the introduction of the 72-foot boats, which can sail faster than 40 knots and have been hard to handle.
After Artemis Racing's Andrew “Bart” Simpson was killed in a capsize on May 9, sailors began wearing body armor, knives, an air tank and breathing tube, self-lowering equipment and underwater locator devices.
That's how extreme this America's Cup has become. This is a nautical X Games compared to the days when sailors wore blue blazers and white pants.
“Any preconceived ideas about sailors, definitely America's Cup sailors, need to go out the window now,” said Spithill, a 34-year-old Australian who steered Oracle Team USA to victory in the 2010 America's Cup. “It's a combination between sort of a motocross rider and an NFL linebacker. You're wearing impact protection, you've got spare air, knives, helmet, communication system. All the guys have been trained in underwater safety. It's serious business now. It can go wrong out there, and if it does, we've seen what can happen.”
Competition starts today when Emirates Team New Zealand faces Italy's Luna Rossa in the opening race of the Louis Vuitton Cup. Artemis has yet to launch its new boat. The Louis Vuitton Cup winner will face Oracle in the 34th America's Cup starting Sept. 7.
The death of Simpson, a two-time Olympic medalist from Great Britain and a father of two, led regatta director Iain Murray to implement 37 safety recommendations, including adding survival gear. The knives are in case sailors need to cut themselves free after a capsize. The self-lowering devices are in case a boat rolls onto its side, stranding sailors high above the cold water.
Emirates Team New Zealand sailors wear white helmets with orange markings. Oracle's sailors wear silver helmets with the Red Bull logo.
“It's more high-visibility, ” said Russell Coutts, a four-time America's Cup winner and CEO of Oracle Team USA.
America's Cup sailors have to be sharp and they have to be fit. All but three of the 11 crewmen have to grind — turning the winches that trim the sails and operate the hydraulic system for the daggerboards.
“As soon as you get on this boat, you're on, and it doesn't stop until you get back to the dock,” Spithill said. “That's quite different to most boats. You just cannot let your focus wander.”