ALAMEDA -- Skeptics might view an AC72 yacht as top-heavy, unwieldy and hopelessly unbalanced. A relatively lightweight catamaran with a sky-high mast, it looks like an accident waiting to happen, especially when becoming nearly airborne on its foils.
But there's more to sailing than meets the eye. It involves art. A lot of science, too. And Bay Area residents can witness it all when the 34th America's Cup -- featuring those state-of-the-art AC72s, the fastest sailboats in history -- comes to San Francisco Bay later this year.
"I'm very hopeful that San Francisco Bay will showcase sailing like its never been showcased before," Artemis Racing CEO Paul Cayard told a packed crowd of community leaders, sailing aficionados and the just plain curious Feb. 28 at the Alameda Theatre.
The occasion was a special evening with Artemis Racing, hosted by the city of Alameda America's Cup Committee. Artemis Racing is Alameda's unofficial home team as it makes Alameda Point is base to prepare for the competition.
"There's a whole life in Alameda for our 110 employees and their families," Cayard said.
"You have a fantastically friendly community, great schools, good weather ... and a nice flat island to ride your bikes," Cayard added, drawing laughter.
For Cayard and company, Artemis Racing's place at the former naval base has become a hub of activity.
"This is as close as most of us will get to the feeling of an athletic village," Mayor Marie Gilmore said in her opening remarks.
In America's Cup parlance, Artemis Racing is the Challenger of Record, meaning it represents the yacht club making the official challenge to the current cup holder, San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club.
Though based in Alameda, Artemis Racing represents the Royal Swedish Yacht Club, Sweden's largest and oldest club. Founded in 1830, the KSSS -- the club's Swedish-language acronym -- boasts more than 6,000 members and is the oldest yacht club outside the British Isles and the fifth oldest in the world.
Despite flying under the Swedish flag, Artemis Racing itself speaks to sailing's international appeal.
Cayard, elected to the Sailing World Hall of Fame 11 years ago, is a native San Franciscan. Design and performance liaison Tom Schnackenberg, who also addressed the audience, hails from New Zealand. Skipper Iain Percy has won two Olympic gold medals for Great Britain. Other countries represented by Artemis Racing employees include Argentina, Australia, France, Italy and of course, Sweden, home of Artemis Racing founder and owner Torbjörn Törnqvist.
The America's Cup boasts a long and rich history that Schnackenberg described to the audience with the help of a slideshow. Dating to 1851, it is the world's oldest international sports trophy, even if the New York Yacht Club held a stranglehold on it for most of its history.
In 1983, the Perth Royal Yacht Club's Australia II finally wrested the trophy from American shores. Besides the United States and Australia, yacht clubs representing only two other nations -- New Zealand and Switzerland -- have ever won the cup.
Through the decades, America's Cup vessels also have evolved. And this year's competition will bring some radical changes.
Gone are the relatively slow and heavy monohulled boats of yesteryear, replaced by the AC72, which can zip along at maximum speeds of more than 35 knots (about 40 miles per hour).
These catamarans feature 72-foot hulls, 46-foot beams and masts reaching higher than 130 feet (imagine 30 Mini Coopers stacked one atop the other, experts say). And at around seven tons, they are more than three times lighter than their immediate predecessors (the International America's Cup class yachts).
During the course of a race, an AC72 will at times have just one hull in the water (with the other in the air). And the action promises to become especially exciting when the boats begin to run on the blades (or foils, as they are known) beneath the hulls.
On the downside, the boats become vulnerable to mishaps. Team Oracle, representing the Golden Gate Yacht Club, capsized in the Bay during an October trial. Some have cited design flaws, but experts have not ruled out faulty construction or crew error as possible causes.
"Sports constantly modify themselves," Cayard said. "We're trying to make a product that the nonsailing public would get excited about."
Those involved with this year's America's Cup have gone to great lengths to expand sailing's reach and popularity. Given the turnout at the Alameda Theatre -- and the overall anticipation of the event -- it seems they already have succeeded.