The warm-up for the America's Cup, arguably the biggest sports event in the sailing world, starts today, August 21, in San Francisco. What better time to learn how to watch and do the water sport?
Here's what you need to know:
What's the Cup? It's the equivalent of the World Cup soccer, with a rich history dating back to 1851. Yacht clubs from around the world compete for a silver trophy, last won by a boat owned by billionaire Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. Past victors include Ted Turner, Harold Vanderbilt, and Bill Koch. The America's Cup "world series" (which will use 45-foot catamarans) starts in San Francisco August 21-26, returns to San Francisco October 2-7, then moves to Venice, Italy, April 16-21, and then to Naples, Italy, May 14-19. The Louis Vuitton Cup (the qualifier for the finals, which will use 72-foot catamarans with 130-foot-tall sails) is July 4-September 1, 2013, in San Francisco. The finals of the 34th running of the Cup are September 7-22 in San Francisco. (You will be able to see it from the shore, on the event's YouTube channel and broadcast on NBC.) If you want to do more than just watch, volunteer to help out.
What are the benefits of sailing? "It's social, and it's sporty," says my friend Elisa Williams, an avid sailor who often writes about the sport. "It's something that people of any size and athletic ability can get involved in." Because you go fast, with the power of wind rather than fuel, it's also "exhilarating," "exciting," and "green," she says. Sailors also learn to be coordinated and to pay attention to the wind. And they can learn and do their sport at any age. Sure, it's not as much exercise as running a marathon. "At times it can be very hard work, while at other times it can be very relaxing." says Elisa. It's also a great way to see the world. Elisa has raced between San Francisco and Hawaii and from England to France.
Who should you watch for during the "world series"? Whether you're watching in person or on NBC, check out the flags for boats from the United States, France, Italy, Spain, Korea, China, Sweden, and New Zealand. British sailor Ben Ainslie, four-time Olympic gold medalist, is among the sailing stars who will be on deck. Another: Stan Honey, director of technology for the event, who invented the yellow stripe showing football's first-down line on TV.
Why don't the vessels look like regular sailboats? The rules about how the boats can be built change every time the races go on - which is every two to four years. "This year the boats are catamarans powered by aerodynamic wings instead of traditional masts and sails."
Do you need to be rich to sail? No. "It's not like everybody started out like the Kennedys," says Elisa. Check out websites such as discoversailing.com, which give basic information and help you find schools and boats. And see if your local yacht club or community center offers classes. Many will get you started with a smaller dinghy. You can even buy affordable boats on sites such as Craigslist. And you can share costs by buying with friends.
Can regular people sail on the fancy boats, too? Whether it's for a day sail or a race, many owners invite on crew to take on different jobs. Someone works at the helm and steers the boat. One or a few crew work the "pit" to control the trim of the sails, which affect the speed of the boat. Often someone else works the foredeck to help with the sails there.
How can you start? Sailing schools in popular ports such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Boston and Miami can get you started in a week. Many also offer students the opportunity to charter boats for a few hours or a weekend. Check out sailing.meetup.com for local groups. And look for co-ops. Membership in the nonprofit, volunteer-run Cal Sailing Club in Berkeley, Calif., costs $75 for three months. (There are no extra charges for taking lessons or using equipment.)
How can you learn what the sailors are talking about? Don't understand terms like "halyard" and "turtling"? No worries. Become an instant expert after you visit helpful websites such as nauticed.org. (A halyard is a rope used to raise a sail, and turtling is capsizing.)
What's the history of sailing? It goes back hundreds and even thousands of years. Think about the explorers (Magellan, Christopher Columbus). Sailing inspired poets such as Walt Whitman and William Wordsworth and almost as many slang terms as baseball (take a different tack, the cut of his jib, walk the plank).
Ready to set sail?
For more about family activities and travel, read: