Making Waves

Sailing aboard an authentic America’s Cup boat may be fun, but it’s no mere pleasure cruise.

With my hands steady on the oversize metal wheel and the boat heeled hard to starboard in the strong breeze, I steal a glance over my shoulder at our opponent. Sprinting for the finish line, my highly-trained crew works feverishly to wring every last bit of speed from the Stars & Stripes as we sail to a convincing victory that will bring the America’s Cup back home.

Okay, so it’s not 1987, I’m not Dennis Conner, and my crew and I didn’t just win what is arguably the most famous sailboat race of all time in the waters off Freemantle, Australia. But those minor details aside, no one could blame a guy for feeling some of the same excitement standing at the helm of one of Conner’s Stars & Stripes racing yachts on a two-hour lap around picturesque San Diego Bay.

Make no mistake, the two boats in today’s informal regatta—Stars & Stripes/USA 34, which won the right to defend America’s Cup in 1995, and its stable-mate Abracadabra/USA 54, a Cup contender in 2000—are no mere pleasure craft. While sailing is often portrayed as a tranquil pastime, the stuff of gentle breezes and genteel yacht club manners, these 80-footers are to ordinary sailboats what a Ferrari Formula One car is to your average Ford sedan in terms of both performance and sex-appeal.

Given the historic sailing contest’s multi-million dollar price of entry, however, this is likely the closest those of us who don’t have “Software Billionaire” at the top of our resume are ever likely to come to taking the wheel of an America’s Cup yacht. The good news is that the folks at Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup Experience have made it possible to join this exclusive club for the paltry sum of about $100.

While these are largely recreational outings, the professional crews’ competitive spirit lies just below the surface as they jockey for position against one another in preparation for the start of the unofficial “race” from the boats’ berth at San Diego’s Embarcadero waterfront to the tip of Point Loma and back. In addition to taking a turn at the wheel, you can try your hand at other crew positions including “grinding” the winches that raise and fine-tune the sails. Or you can simply sit back and relax in the perfect San Diego sunshine and watch the scenery go by in one heck of a hurry.

The next America’s Cup race is tentatively scheduled for summer 2009, which means there’s no time to lose if you plan on learning the ropes in time to take your turn at the helm.

Xtrordinary Xtra
It’s hard to comprehend the size of these boats until you see them up close. The masts on these two America’s Cup contenders, for example, are as tall as an 11-story building.

Xtrordinary Xtra
Contrary to popular belief, the America’s Cup race is not named after the country the silver-plated trophy called home for more than 100 years. Instead it’s named for the schooner America, the first yacht to win the international sailing competition back in 1851.

The Facts
Name: Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup Experience
Location: Downtown San Diego, at the Embarcadero (corner of Broadway and North Harbor Drive).
Phone: 800-644-3454.

My Advice

  • If you’re a sailing aficionado this is a dream come true. If you’re not, it’s still a pretty darn unique experience and a very pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon.
  • The recommended equipment here is pretty simple: Hat, sunglasses, sunblock.
  • As the, ahem, facilities aboard these boats are rather primitive, you’ll want to visit the restroom before you shove off.