SAN FRANCISCO — 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. You don't take it lightly."
Competition starts Sunday 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.
Simpson was remembered with a three-minute video montage during the opening ceremony on Thursday.
Also Thursday, Artemis Racing CEO Paul Cayard issued a statement criticizing Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa for protesting two of the 37 safety recommendations, including a highly technical one involving winglets on the rudders.
Cayard said statements by those teams have been "erroneous, insulting, and downright disrespectful." He also said that suggestions that the two contentious issues were pushed through to help Oracle or Artemis "are slanderous and paranoid."
Spithill was at the wheel when Oracle's first boat capsized last October. No one was injured, but the boat was swept under the Golden Gate Bridge and the churning waves smashed the 131-foot, high-tech wing sail, sidelining the crew for four months.
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, although one wears a white hockey helmet, and their sleeves are bright orange.
"It's more high-visibility, " said Russell Coutts, a four-time America's Cup winner and CEO of Oracle Team USA.
Simpson was trapped for at least 10 minutes under the twisted wreckage of Artemis' 7-ton boat.
Since Oracle had been sailing against Artemis right before the accident, Coutts was in a nearby chase boat.
"That was one of the keys, really. It took quite a while to find where he was," Coutts said. "And in the marine environment, you haven't got time. You've got between 30 seconds and I'd say up to two minutes, and after that, you know ... and unfortunately, they just couldn't find him. It was just horrible. Our diver went in the water. But when they couldn't find him for that length of time, you just knew it wasn't going to be good."
Each team has rescue divers and medics in the chase boats that struggle to keep up with the fast catamarans, which are so high-tech that they lift out of the water and ride on hydrofoils as they sail downwind.
Spithill said the team constantly does safety drills, including underwater simulations in which sailors practice getting their air supply going and getting out from under impediments.
"That gives you confidence going out there," he said.
"Nine times out of 10, everyone on the boat is going to be at max heart rate," he said. "So when you're underwater you've got max heart, but very little time. You've got to make sure you spend those seconds wisely if you need them. "
Team New Zealand tactician Ray Davis said being bundled up in survival gear doesn't make sailing these boats any less dangerous.
"You've got to be lucky to get out of a capsize situation. Oracle were lucky; obviously Artemis was a devastating ending there. It's a very, very fine line when you're in that situation. This is going to help your chances, but probably by just a few percent," Davies said.
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. Every time the boats tack or gybe, the sailors have to scramble across the trampoline — the net that serves as the deck — to the other hull.
"They're a handful," said Oracle tactician John Kostecki, who turns 49 on Sunday and is one of the older sailors in the Cup.
Oracle grinder Shannon Falcone burned 5,900 calories during a two-boat training session Wednesday.
"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. If you do, it will come back and get you. Especially for the guys in the other positions. It's just relentless physically. Our races are 30 to 40 minutes. We don't get halftime, we don't' get timeouts. It's a sprint. It's max heart rate the whole time. We don't get outside assistance, we don't talk to our pit teams. It's a full on battle for 30 to 40 minutes. There's not many other sports where you just go nonstop like that. There's no referees who say, 'Stop.' "
This will be the most spectacular America's Cup setting ever. The starting line will be perpendicular to the Golden Gate Bridge and the boats will sail past Alcatraz Island. They'll be within view of the Transamerica Pyramid and Coit Tower.
But gazing at landmarks is for tourists, not sailors.
"Never," Spithill said. "It's just full-on. It takes 100 percent focus. The only time we get to look is when we're about to run into Alcatraz and then we get a real good look at it. In the fog, everything comes up quick at 45 knots."
As serious as they have to be, there was a funny moment a while back for Spithill and his mates.
There's a steering wheel on each side of the boats, which are about 50 feet wide. When Spithill was switching sides during a maneuver, he tripped and went over the top of the wheel. He grabbed ahold of it but the wheel broke and he fell into the bay.
"It cost me a lot at the bar that night," Spithill said. "It was definitely embarrassing. You've got to have a bit of a laugh and put your hand up. It was a long chase boat ride back to the boat. The boys basically gave me a standing ovation when I came back and I definitely paid for it that night. It was relentless. Rounds, trays of oysters. I've never seen so much food come out in my life. Little did I know they had so many oysters in their reserve tank because they all seemed to come out."