AC72's America's Cup Quest
Credit: Photograpg by Jose Mandojana
But branding efforts and TV contracts aside, even just building and running an AC72 is a massive undertaking. As befits the company's Silicon Valley roots, Oracle's base looks a lot like a well-funded start-up, with a staff of roughly 150 (it fluctuates depending on the time of year) spread among more than half a dozen different departments. The shore team, as these nonsailors are called, includes engineers, electronics experts, hydraulics specialists, rigging and sail designers, and boat builders, as well as more traditional operations staff such as lawyers, marketing execs, accountants, janitors, and chefs. A winning campaign typically costs in the neighborhood of $100 million, and more. Given the fact that Oracle doesn't race until the finals, even if they go all 17 races, the campaign will have cost at least $200,000 per minute of sailing, and possibly as much as twice that.

In the second week of April, Oracle's new boat is almost finished. Two sailors, Will McCarthy and Brian MacInnes, are painting glue onto a wooden boat mount, which they'll cover with AstroTurf to keep it from scratching the hull. Meanwhile, MacBeth is up on top of the boat, working on the winches. In addition to sailing, every sailor has his own design specialty and chips in with other jobs around the base. Newton trained as a sailmaker. Gilo Nobilli programmed some of the onboard electronics. Falcone helps design the team's technical gear. They're almost like astronauts, in that they have to be both mechanically inclined and down to do grunt work. Imagine Aaron Rodgers refitting the seams on a football, then going out to resod Lambeau Field.

Around 9:30 a.m., it's time for rollout. Oracle brings the boat inside most nights; at $10 million, it's not exactly like leaving your Chevy in the driveway. (When they keep it in the water all night, they post guards around the clock.) The process takes three dozen guys about an hour: First the sail is towed onto the dock and lifted by a 200-foot crane, where it hangs feathering in the wind for a few minutes before being lowered onto the boat. Then the crane swivels the boat out over the channel, and drops it in like plopping a toy into a bathtub.

Next a support boat ties up to starboard on the AC72, lashed to its hull like a sidecar, and starts to tow it out into the bay, past a cement plant and some nesting osprey. On the opposite shore, a man with a long-lens digital camera snaps pictures like a paparazzo. This is a "spy" from a competing team – probably Team New Zealand, Oracle's main rival. Spying is intrinsic to the America's Cup; not so much Belichick-filming-the-Jets-type espionage, but more akin to baseball scouts checking out each other's teams at spring training. It's tolerated, so long as it's kept within certain limits – when one of Oracle's spy boats got closer than 200 meters to Luna Rossa last November, they earned themselves a five-day suspension.

In the bay, it's an absolutely beautiful day. Even the seals are out to play. Two nights earlier, San Francisco had record winds, 70 miles an hour under the Golden Gate Bridge, and it's still blowing hard: When the AC72 hits the end of the pier and catches the wind, it takes off like a rocket. None of the motorized chase boats can keep up.

On the water, the boat looks amazing – gloss-black and sleek, like an SR-71 Blackbird plane, or KITT from Knight Rider. It flies past an old clipper ship giving rides to tourists, and the two bear so little resemblance that it's hard to believe they're in the same family. Sailing etiquette dictates that boats to port are supposed to yield to those to starboard, but the 72 is so much faster and more maneuverable than any other boat on the water that they consider everything else to be standing still. Other sailboats may as well be buoys: Oracle just goes around them.

I'm in a chase boat being driven by a 55-year-old Oracle sailor named Murray Jones, one of the most decorated sailors in the America's Cup Hall of Fame, one of the few men to win four Cups in a row. (If that's not impressive enough, consider how good a sailor he must be for the best sailors in the world to call him the Captain.) The AC72 cruises the bay for a while, slicing back and forth between Alcatraz and the Golden Gate. Near the marina, it zooms past a flock of tiny Optimist boats, some grade-school kids taking one of their first sailing lessons, and the kids gape in awe.

John Kostecki, a native of San Rafael, has been sailing in the San Francisco Bay all his life. He says it's one of the hardest places to sail in the world. "Here in Northern California, we have this steep, clifflike coast, especially underwater," Kostecki says. "So we get these upwellings where there's a lot of cold, deep water pushed up, and at the same time, the air in the San Joaquin Valley gets incredibly hot. So that's a perfect breeding ground for strong thermal sea breezes." On top of that, he says, the current is tricky, because the runoff from the Sierra Nevada is being forced through the narrow Golden Gate. Combine the two, Joe Newton says, and "it's just nuclear. You get a dense, strong breeze and the current running out underneath, and it's a really sketchy place to sail."

After a while, Oracle is joined on the water by the Swedish team. They line up a few times for some practice runs, racing back and forth to an imaginary point, like a friendly pickup scrimmage. Oracle keeps up on the upwind legs, which is a good sign, because that's where Artemis is supposed to be faster. On the downwind legs, Oracle destroys them.

The difference between the two is that Oracle's boat can foil. Hydrofoiling, or foiling for short, is when the boat's two hulls lift fully out of the water, as the boat skims along with nothing but the two razor-thin daggerboards keeping it from floating away. When the rules were written, none of the teams expected to foil. "In fact," Coutts says, "the rule was written to prevent it." But one by one, the teams discovered a loophole that made it possible. Artemis was still working on it.

De Ridder says that when Oracle first started learning to foil in the AC72, "we were lunatics. We were completely unstable." It's a trade-off between speed and stability – basically, how unstable you are willing to be in order to go very, very fast. Even now, they're still trying to master it. As the AC72 slices across our bow, with nothing but a couple millimeters of carbon tethering it to the water, I joke that it looks like it might fall over at any second. At the wheel, the Captain cocks an eyebrow. "That's because it could," he says.