HAMILTON, Bermuda (Reuters) - Foiling catamarans similar to those being sailed in the America’s Cup are creating a new generation of sailors and teams seeking to attract a new breed of supporters.
Among the crews in the 2017 Red Bull Youth America’s Cup in Bermuda, which culminates next week as eight teams battle for the title, one team found a novel way to boost sailing’s youth appeal.
“Interested in dating one of the boys?” was splashed across the Austrian team’s sails. The advertising image, for a dating app, has been widely shared on social media in the high profile event for the world’s top 18-24-year old sailors.
“We’ve never had so many people watching us, helicopters following us and people cheering,” Heli Schulz, who is the sail trimmer for Austria’s Candidate Sailing Team, told Reuters.
Although this is the second youth event, it is the first time the sailors have raced the foiling AC45F catamarans which are used by America’s Cup sailors to train.
The boats can hit speeds of over 30 knots (56 km per hour) as they ‘fly’ on hydrofoils, a spectacle which is winning over television audiences and spectators but has heads shaking among sailing traditionalists.
However, the championship has already shown it can be a path to success. Winning the debut event in San Francisco in 2013 turbocharged the career of Peter Burling.
The 26-year-old is now the youngest helmsman in the America’s Cup for Emirates Team New Zealand, which is challenging defending champions Oracle Team USA.
“I see some incredible hooks evolving here for young people, this is the world of Formula One on the water. It’s really exciting,” said John Bertrand, who skippered Australia II to victory in the 1983 America’s Cup.
The introduction of foiling boats into the youth event has levelled the playing field between the national teams of varying experience ranging from near professional multi-hull sailors to those who stepped on a catamaran for the first time a year ago.
“We had no multi hull or foiling experience, it’s been a steep learning curve,” Bermudan skipper Mackenzie Cooper said.
Rapidly developing technology on the demanding foiling boats has also opened a door into the sport for athletes such as Bermudan bowman Philip Hagan, a swimmer who has competed internationally, and wing grinder and soccer player Mustafa Ingham.
“I don’t think they realised how emotionally intense it is, I don’t know any other sport where you’re so dependent on the actions of others and moving on a platform that is potentially deadly,” said Laura Cutler, Bermuda’s team manager.
The sport still has some way to go in other areas.
Britain’s Annabel Vose is the only woman racing in the competition and is doing strategy for her team.
Female participation on high performance multi-hulls has previously been curtailed by a high weight limit and the physical demands, but a lower weight limit in this competition helped Vose to get on board.
“I think we would struggle to get there without a lighter person,” British skipper and bowman Rob Bunce said.
Editing by Alexander Smith and Ed Osmond