Rice vs. O'Brien: Battle in the Bay
Sometimes, when an opportunity to spend a day outside and call it work arises, you jump at it first and ask questions later. The Red Bull-sponsored fun race between action sports megastars Jamie O'Brien and Travis Rice -- done on America's Cup AC45 catamarans, with Team Oracle USA crew members, in the San Francisco Bay where the America's Cup is taking place -- was just such an occasion.
The opportunity to cruise around on the water for an afternoon with Rice and O'Brien was the draw. Having stumbled into the yachting world on a few occasions over the years, courtesy of friends with summer jobs crewing massive sailboats for the idle rich, any real fascination I may have had with sailing -- as an activity or lifestyle -- disappeared long ago.
Even when Rice bought a catamaran and started spending almost as much time on it as he does his snowboard, turning into a sailing proselytizer, my prejudice held.
"Imagine if you had a Winnebago and you weren't limited to go where there were roads," Rice is fond of saying when asked where this interest in sailing comes from. "The world we live in is so safe. You're shown where to go and told how to do it. With sailing you just ... go."
The spirit for adventure that fuels Rice's passion for sailing can be infectious. But how this love of the open ocean carried over into an interest in big-boat regattas like the America's Cup has always been hard to understand. Sailboat racing is beloved by the billionaire-club khaki and Dockers set, of which Rice is most definitely not a part.
It turns out that, when it comes to sailing, I'm not the only one with a perception problem. Races like the one between Rice and O'Brien are part of a larger outreach program led by America's Cup outfit Oracle Team USA to educate people on the new era of competitive sailing, and maybe change some minds about the sport in the process.
And you know what? It worked.
For those who don't follow the America's Cup, here's an overview: At more than 150 years old, it's sailing's most prestigious trophy. Whichever team wins it decides many of the terms for the next Cup race, including where it's held and what kinds of boats will be used.
When Oracle Team USA won the last Cup, it decided to change the game completely by bringing the race close to shore to encourage spectating and by reinventing the boats themselves. The 72-foot catamarans currently being raced in the America's Cup are so technologically advanced that they cost upward of $10 million to research, design and build. This hefty price tag has kept all but four teams, total, from competing, which in turn has created a swirling vortex of drama around the race itself.
This is the thing about the new boats, though: They're really fun to watch. It turns out, that's exactly the point.
"Before [the change], this was more of an elitist sport," Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill explained to our group of nonsailors that had gathered to watch O'Brien and Rice's race. "You didn't have to be that athletic. The boats were pretty slow. The race itself took place miles offshore. It wasn't really a spectator's sport."
Now, however, the races happen right along the shoreline, so anyone can stand out on the beach and watch. Because the new boats go four times faster than the old boats, people come.
Rice has been geeked out on the technology of the America's Cup catamarans since his first tour through the Oracle Team USA training facility over a year ago. But it's hard to fully get why he's been making such a big a big deal about carbon-fiber wings (sails) and hydrofoils (those strange things big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton has been experimenting with on his surfboards) until you see them in action.
It would take an incredible act of stubborn will to hold on to my jaded attitude toward this new form of competitive sailing after watching a 72-foot boat raise completely out of the water while careening along at over 40 mph.
According to Spithill, the new boats are "more like race cars. The harder you push them, the faster they go, but there's a real line. You go too hard and you can flip them over; there are consequences."
It is here, at the intersection of high-consequence action and the type of athlete that attracts, where the new era of competitive sailing lives. And it is crossing over into that blurred-line territory where so-called traditional sports and action sports are nearly impossible to distinguish from each other.
"It's become an athlete's game," said Spithill. "We've had heart monitors going during these events, and they're maxed out the whole time. Honestly, when you look at the data after [a race], it looks like there are a few guys having a heart attack."
It's safe to say that the Oracle Team USA crew is mostly made up of adrenaline junkies. When they're not sailing, many of them surf, snowboard or fly helicopters and planes. It was eye-opening to watch elite athletes from our action sports world, like Rice and O'Brien, treat athletes from the upper echelon of the competitive sailing world as kindred spirits -- and then to realize it's because they are.
As to the AC45 fun race between Rice and O'Brien, poor J.O.B. never really had a chance. According to the terms of the race, the losing crew -- which includes Spithill -- has to help Rice build a backcountry booter for his next movie. No one seemed too bummed about the prospect of spending a week snowboarding in Wyoming this winter.
And that might be everything you really need to know about this new breed of America's Cup sailor, and why it might be interesting to check out what they're all about. If Sunday's races, which were edge-of-the-seat, scream-at-the-television nail-biters, were any indication of the action to come, it's going to be a fun week of spectating -- whether you're a sailing fan or not.
The America's Cup continues today and runs through the weekend, or until one of the boats wins nine races. A broadcast schedule is up on the America's Cup website, and race highlights are posted at the end of each day on YouTube.