"Hold on for dear life!"
That's the warning from the sailors aboard the 45-foot racing catamarans that you'll see slicing through whitecaps next week, when the America's Cup World Series brings the thrills and spills of the world's most exciting racing to San Francisco Bay.
Imagine a white-knuckle drag race on the back of a bucking a bronco -- with winds whipping up at nearly 20 mph and a firehose of salt water battering over the bow. The signature America's Cup races are still a year away, but 11 catamarans from eight countries will be on the bay next week offering a taste of the drama that's to come.
And if you position yourself right, you might even see and hear Oracle CEO Larry Ellison -- wearing a crash helmet like the rest of the crew -- calling the shots from onboard.
On Wednesday, Ellison's racing team showed reporters and even San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee just what it's like out there on a high-tech carbon fiber boat with a main sail reaching 70 feet into the air. A year of racing in different ports around the world have shown these sailors to expect anything but a smooth ride.
"Every team that's been out has tipped it over and broken stuff,'' said Dirk De Ridder, Oracle crew member. "There will be some damage this week for sure. I'll put money on it.''
Starting next Wednesday, spectators can line the bay at Marina Green where a mini-America's Cup village will feature big screen TVs and front-row views of the action for free.
The 45-foot catamarans -- smaller than the 72-footers that will race next summer -- will be competing so fast and close to shore, one official says, "you can almost touch them."
The so-called America's Cup World Series will prove whether Ellison can deliver what he's promised: an exhilarating experience for spectators both on shore and on TV. Far from a stodgy, elitist sport for the ascot crowd with yachts lumbering far out to sea, racing in the bay this summer and next will be closer to "NASCAR on the water," said Stephen Barclay, CEO of the America's Cup Event Authority.
And if a past misadventure is a preview of the drama ahead, the World Series just might come through. During an early practice sail on the bay last year, Russell Coutts, the winningest America's Cup skipper in history and the CEO of Ellison's Oracle Team USA, capsized one of the twin-hulled catamaran's end-over-end in stiff bay winds. He not only plunged from the helm in a 30-foot freefall, but crashed headfirst through the main sail into the frigid bay waters.
"I think you'll see a lot of that next week,'' Coutts said in an interview Wednesday before a practice run. "If you make a mistake, you get punished.''
The Swedish team already capsized once this week.
Four Olympic medalists fresh from London will compete next week, including four-time gold medalist Ben Ainslie who carried the British flag into closing ceremonies. His credentials are impressive, but his experience on the temperamental AC45 is limited.
"I think he'll be a little bit scared," said Kimball Livingston, an editor-at-large for Sail Magazine. "I think all these guys as they get into it are a little bit scared -- and for good reason. You can hurt yourself."
Along with Ainslie racing for Great Britain, other medalists sailing next week will be aboard boats representing Oracle's Team USA, Team Korea and Artemis Racing of Sweden. Teams from New Zealand, China, Italy and France will also be competing.
"I can't understand how it could not thrill a crowd. You look out there and see it, most people who look at it will find it pretty exciting," Livingston said. "What's been hard is we're all suffering from anticipation fatigue. It's been a very long build-up."
Ellison, who learned to sail as a young man at Berkeley's Cal Sailing Club, has essentially reinvented the America's Cup since his Oracle Team USA won the oldest active trophy in international sports history in 2010 against the Swiss boat Alinghi. That victory earned him the right to bring the regatta back to American shores. He chose the San Francisco Bay, a natural amphitheater and "racetrack," as organizers like to call it, where spectators can ring the racecourse -- the first time in America's Cup history the race will be sailed so close to shore.
Not only did Ellison change the type of boat everyone must build to compete next summer -- a 72-foot catamaran -- his team also designed a 45-foot version and created a "world series" for competitors to practice, build spectator interest and extend the America's Cup season for sailors and sponsors.
In partnership with the city, the America's Cup Event Authority has started to transform parts of the Embarcadero for a headquarters and an America's Cup Village.
Still, despite the hype and planning, only four teams will compete in the bigger boats next summer as part of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the race that determines who will take on defending champion Oracle Racing for the America's Cup trophy.
"Without a doubt the economic climate has been challenging," Barclay said. "That's why there are four challengers and not 11."
But 11 boats will be lining up for next week's World Series, including France who only recently announced they couldn't afford to compete in the main event next summer.
"We've got the best sailors in the fastest boats," said Tom Ehman, vice commodore of the Golden Gate Yacht Club. "And that's the bottom line."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her on twitter @juliasulek.
What: The America's Cup World Series, a five-day event pitting teams from eight countries racing 45-foot catamarans in a prelude to next year's America's Cup.
Where: San Francisco Bay, with viewing best from the America's Cup Village in San Francisco's Marina Green.
When: America's Cup Village opens at 10 a.m. each day from Wednesday to Sunday, Aug. 26; with racing beginning 1 p.m. Wednesday; 2:10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 12:25 p.m. Sunday.
Cost: Free; VIP tickets from $1,500
TV: Live racing, Comcast SportsNet California, Thursday-Sunday; Finals on NBC 11, 11:30 a.m. Sunday.