SAN FRANCISCO -- Some of the world's elite sailing teams get their first taste of competition on San Francisco Bay on Wednesday afternoon and their skippers say they will be facing challenges found nowhere else.
"The cool thing about this bay is that it has everything," said James Spithill, skipper of one of two Oracle Team USA boats competing this week in the America's Cup World Series. "In Venice, it's all about the tight canal you've got to race in. Here you've got the currents changing every day, the wind speed is always up and it's always different. You've got the fog. You never really get to master this bay. You're always learning."
Added Russell Coutts, skipper of the other Oracle entry: "If the wind and the current was the same every day it would be relatively simple. But there are subtle differences every day. This is a really shifty venue."
Shifty and potentially more hazardous than most. Regatta director Iain Murray said Wednesday morning that five boats had capsized during training sessions over the past few days and the event record of eight is in danger of being broken this week.
Eleven 45-foot catamarans will compete this week, but only six will participate in Wednesday's qualifying races for the match-race tournament that is part of this event. The other five -- including those helmed by Spithill and Coutts -- received an automatic berth based on their performances during the 2011-12 ACWS season.
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Having competed in the London Olympics, Ainslie has had only four days of training on the bay with his new crew -- not a lot of time to get to know a boat he will be racing for the first time on an unfamiliar course.
"It's a huge learning curve for me," he said, adding that he "was blown away by how fast they are" when he sailed on a 45-foot catamaran with Coutts in December.
The ACWS, which continues through Sunday, consists of the match races and fleet races that begin Thursday and put all 11 boats on the course at the same time. The week is a chance for the elite sailing teams to become familiar with the site of the more prestigious America's Cup race set for San Francisco next year.
While the bay has been the site of sailing races in the past, none attracted the caliber of crews and boats as those in San Francisco this week.
John Kostecki, tactician on the Oracle Spithill boat, knows better than most the challenges of San Francisco Bay. He grew up in San Rafael and Novato, and developed his sailing skills at the Richmond and St. Francis yacht clubs.
But Kostecki played down any edge that might give him.
"It evens out pretty quickly as teams sail here more," he said. "The course area is very small so at the end of the day, there really isn't any home field knowledge."