AC72's America's Cup Quest
Credit: Photograpg by Jose Mandojana

The word catamaran comes from the Tamil kattumaram, meaning "tied-together wood." That is not what these boats are. Technological innovation has been a hallmark of the America's Cup ever since the very first race, in 1851, when the America, built for the New York Yacht Club by a designer named George Steers, ditched the then standard "cod's head and mackerel's tail" design in favor of a longer, thinner hull, and subsequently left 14 boats from Her Majesty's Royal Navy sputtering in her wake. But this year's boats are a step beyond.

The AC72 features twin hulls of ultralight carbon fiber, which are coated in polyurethane and Nomex (the same flame-resistant polymer used in nascar uniforms and flight suits) and baked in an oven at 194 degrees, until it's hard and shiny like obsidian. But the real feat is the carbon-fiber wing sail, which is exactly what it sounds like: a sail that works like a wing. The wing is rigid like an airplane's and functions according to the same principles of physics. Wind moves across the sail, creating lift – only, because the sail is vertical and not horizontal, it pushes the boat forward instead of up. "These boats are so fast that they basically never sail downwind," Newton says. "You know how if you stick your head out a car window it still feels like the wind is in front of you? That's how these boats operate."

Wing sails made their first appearance in the America's Cup in 1988, on Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes. But since then they've become standard, prized for their faster performance as well as their durability. (When Oracle's boat capsized during the team's death-defying accident in October, they patched it up with carbon fiber and sailed it for 20 more days.) The newer they are, though, the more futuristic they get: Inside Oracle's wing, for instance, are embedded fiber-optic cables that collect information about the boat's performance from some 28,000 data points. "It's just a mind-boggling amount of data," says John Kostecki. "It takes 24 hours to process the little bit we want." Adds Falcone, only half-joking: "It's a good thing Oracle is our sponsor."

Oracle, the computer software giant, is owned by Larry Ellison – the fifth-richest person in the world, and the wealthiest in the United States not named Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. He has an estimated net worth of $43 billion and recently bought his own Hawaiian island. Since 2000, he has dedicated a significant portion of his massive resources to winning the America's Cup. He finally got one in 2010, with a wing-sail trimaran even bigger than the AC72, and a campaign that some analysts say cost as much as $400 million.

"That boat was just a monster," Newton says of the trimaran, called USA 17. "It felt like the thing was going to collapse around you the whole time." Just the 200-foot mast cost $10 million – as much as an entire AC72 – and the massive wing sail needed an engine to manipulate it, which scandalized purists. It took two cranes just to get the thing off the dock. "I don't think we'll see that anymore," de Ridder says. "The amount of time and effort that went into that boat was just unreal."

Ellison, a longtime yachtsman, gave himself an honorary spot in Oracle's afterguard (the members of the crew responsible for tactics and strategy), and he was onboard when they secured their America's Cup victory. Coutts, speaking diplomatically, calls his boss "a keen sailor," and a "competent" one. "He loves the sport, loves the challenge, obviously loves the technology," Coutts says. "And he's involved with the big decisions. He might not be in the room, but he gets a full rundown of what's going on." According to most of the sailors, Ellison rarely visits the base, and few of them have said more than a couple of words to him. "But he makes it pretty clear," says Coutts, "that you've got to achieve results. Financial targets, performance targets – he expects results."

This time, having won his Cup, Ellison has even bigger goals. He single-handedly underwrote a new organization called the America's Cup Event Authority to help sell and promote the event. He also implemented several changes to the race in order to appeal to mainstream sports fans. Ellison, who rarely speaks to the press, declined to comment for this story. But it's not hard to imagine that – as the self-made computer whiz who crashed the club of financial high society – he now wants to remake the high-end yachting world in his own image as well. "He wasn't born into money," Spithill says. "He was adopted, and he worked his ass off."

For Ellison, the real prize for winning the America's Cup wasn't the trophy – it was the ability to write the rules for next time. His longtime dream had been to make the Cup more accessible to the average American, and to that end, he introduced several changes. In the past, the Cup was held far offshore, where seating is hard to come by. Ellison moved it to the picturesque San Francisco Bay, where crowds and TV crews could watch. The Cup was also unpredictable, as less-than-optimal weather conditions like a lack of wind could postpone races hours or even days. Ellison made the boats faster and more maneuverable, so they could sail on schedule and in any conditions. He made the courses shorter and better defined, so spectators could see who was winning. And he helped fund a TV technology called LiveLine – designed by the same guy who invented the yellow first-down line and Fox's glowing hockey puck – so that even viewers who don't know a jib from a gennaker could yell at their TVs with authority.