SAN FRANCISCO - There's nothing like the first leg of the first race of the America's Cup, when teams get an idea of whose boat is fastest and who might have missed badly after spending $100 million or more.
And there's never been an America's Cup like this. It's being sailed on breathtaking San Francisco Bay in foiling 72-foot catamarans that can hit 50 mph. Defending champion Oracle Team USA is starting with a two-point deficit after getting punished in the biggest cheating scandal in the regatta's 162-year history.
It's an American tycoon, software billionaire Larry Ellison, against the gutty Kiwis of Emirates Team New Zealand, who carry the hopes of their small, sailing-mad island nation and a desire to sweep the Auld Mug back to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron.
The short-course, inshore racing is both fan- and TV-friendly. Race 1 is scheduled to start at 4:15 p.m. today, with Race 2 to follow an hour later. Two races are scheduled for Sunday, with all four weekend races being shown live on NBC.
For the Kiwis, it's still best-of-17, meaning they need to win nine races to win the Cup. With its penalty, Oracle Team USA must win 11 races to keep the trophy.
Here are five things to watch in the 34th America's Cup:
San Francisco: While past America's Cups have been contested miles out at sea, this one will be sailed in one of the world's greatest natural amphitheaters, with a steady wind and sometimes tricky tide. Fans can watch from the shore or high-rise buildings. After starting parallel to the Golden Gate Bridge, the boats sail a short reach across the wind and then speed downwind past Alcatraz Island. The five-leg course ends just off Piers 27-29, home to America's Cup Park.
Larry Ellison: The co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corp. is an avid sailor who's spent an estimated $500 million during the last 10 years in pursuing, winning and now defending the silver trophy. Then again, his estimated net worth of $43 billion makes him one of the world's wealthiest individuals. People either love or hate Ellison, and there's been plenty of grumbling that his grand vision for a regatta with a dozen or more challengers fizzled, in part because of the economy and the expensive, dangerous boats.
The scandal: Oracle Team USA was caught illegally modifying 45-foot catamarans that were used in the warmup regattas called the America's Cup World Series.
An international jury issued the harshest penalties in the 162-year history of the America's Cup. Besides docking Oracle two points, wing trimmer Dirk de Ridder was booted from the regatta, along with two shore crew members. Grinder Matt Mitchell was banned from the first four races and the syndicate was fined $250,000. Although Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill and syndicate CEO Russell Coutts were never implicated, the jury said it "seems inconceivable that boat riggers initiated these changes without the knowledge of managers, or the direction of sailors, if not skippers." Spithill has been almost defiant, saying Oracle is a clear underdog.
The basics: The 72-foot catamarans are powered by 131-foot wing sails that look and perform like jetliner wings, including flaps. At around 20 knots, the boats lift onto hydrofoils, their hulls completely out of the water to reduce drag and increase speed. It takes 11 crew to sail the demanding boats, and the sailors bound across the trampoline from one hull to another when the boats tack or gybe. The sailors wear crash helmets and life vests.
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. The five-leg course helps accommodate the schedule of two races a day to fit into a TV window. The course goes on a reach, downwind, upwind, downwind and a short reach to the finish.
Good on ya, mates: There's a definite Down Under flavor to the America's Cup. Oracle skipper Spithill is Aussie, although his wife is from San Diego and they have a home there. Coutts won the first two of his four America's Cups with his native New Zealand. Of Emirates Team New Zealand's 15 sailors, 13 are Kiwis and the other two are Aussies, although Adam Beashel also has a New Zealand passport. Of the 11 men who will sail Oracle Team USA, four are Aussies and two are Kiwis. Only two are Americans.
, tactician John Kostecki, a San Francisco native, and grinder Rome Kirby, whose father, Jerry, competed in six America's Cup campaigns. Ashby, Team New Zealand's Aussie-born trimmer, has sailed with both Spithill and Barker. "They probably both want to kill each other," Ashby said. In a figurative sense, the aggressive Spithill would like to do that in the pre-start maneuvers and round the first mark in first place, a bellwether to how the series might go.