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A Serious Sport on the High Seas

On the brink of the world’s most high-profile sailing race, Oracle Team USA has the island of Bermuda buzzing again

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When we pull up to the South Basin of Bermuda’s Royal Navy Dockyard—“pit row,” as the locals call it—the sun
is barely peeking out from behind a swath of clouds. It’s just past seven in the morning, an ordinarily tranquil time of day for an island brimming with carefree vacationers. But things are far from tranquil here. There are workers straddling jackhammers like pogo sticks, causing the ground beneath us to tremor; young women pace feverishly back and forth while clutching walkie-talkies.

In just two years—once the stadium-style seating, concert stages and Jumbotrons have arrived—this place will
be virtually unrecognizable. Now, though, it’s nothing more than an empty concrete pier dotted with aircraft hangars. Outside of one, a cluster of men with tanned faces and sun-bleached locks have congregated; they’re dressed in matching black tracksuits like a SWAT team of Cali-bred surfers. But they aren’t here to catch waves. They’re here to sail. 

The cause for the commotion is Oracle Team USA—a syndicate of 50 people, including 12 sailors—who, this past April, uprooted their lives and descended upon Bermuda, the host venue for the 35th America’s Cup. Though the race won’t commence until June 2017, teams from around the world will spend two years and millions of dollars scrutinizing every nuance of the course in preparation. For Oracle, the stakes couldn’t be higher. The Larry Ellison–backed team sailed to victory in both the 33rd and 34th America’s Cups, leaving them with the monumental task of defending the trophy once again in 2017. 

And so, here they are, at seven in the morning, readying to set sail on Bermuda’s Great Sound. Oracle’s skipper, James Spithill, a native of Northern Australia with freckled skin and chapped lips, explains that the boat they’ll race today is simply a “small prototype” of the 50-foot flying catamaran set to be used in the actual competition. (That boat will take an entire year to complete.) “Small prototype” seems like a deeply inadequate way to describe the thing sitting in front of us—a gargantuan vessel that reaches speeds of up to 30 knots (35 miles per hour) and can, quite literally, fly several feet above the water. 

The ruckus throughout pit row suddenly comes to a screeching halt, as the boat rolls out from beneath the hangar like a Thanksgiving Day parade float. It’s lowered into the water, the sail is secured in place and the sailors climb aboard. Their movements are calculated and robotic, making it easy to forget—just for a moment—that Oracle’s modelesque machines are also human, with lives beyond the confines of the dockyard. Spithill admits that his teammates were initially hesitant about moving here. “I think everyone’s adjusting. It’s a big change coming from a place like San Francisco,” he says of the most recent America’s Cup host city. But in just a few short weeks they’ve come to embrace island life, and the island, it seems, has embraced them twofold. For Bermudians, sailing is a religion—and that makes sailors gods. They are ogled as they work out on the beach, high-fived at the gas station and recognized in restaurants. Their presence offers the island a promise of exciting things to come.

NEXT: A Guide to the Best of Bermuda

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