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The worlds most prestigious and expensive sailboat race, the Americas Cup, begins Monday off the coast of Valencia, Spain. The cup has a 159-year history, going back to the day of wooden schooners. And its no stranger to controversy, as NPRs Scott Neuman reports, this years competition throws out tradition and steers yacht racing into uncharted waters.

SCOTT NEUMAN: First the boats - theyre a lot bigger, and twice as fast as previous Americas Cup-class yachts.

Mr. RUSSELL COUTTS (Skipper, American entry): It's completely different sailing these boats.

NEUMAN: Russell Coutts, a veteran New Zealand sailor, is skipper for the American entry.

Mr. COUTTS: Theyre much, much faster than the old monohulls. And that's because they are so much lighter and so much more powerful.

NEUMAN: Americas Cups yachts have traditionally been monohulls, a single sleek shell piercing the water. This time, both competitors will sail multihulls for the first time. Think Polynesian outriggers on steroids. The U.S. challenger team BMW/Oracle's�USA hopes its giant three-hulled trimaran can unseat Swiss defender Alinghi's�equally large two-hulled catamaran.

Mr. COUTTS: Its been a game where both sides have been trying to develop their boats to go as fast as possibly in a straight line. I don't think you're going to see as many maneuvers, but I think youre going to see much higher speeds.

NEUMAN: By design, catamarans and trimarans are faster, but to push the envelope even further, both boats carry high-tech foils that help lift them out of the water to minimize drag. They almost fly over the surface.�BMW/Oracle also sports a super efficient rigid mainsail thats similar to an airplane wing stood on its side.

Critics argue that such departures fly in the face of tradition and threaten the very character of the competition. That, along with a two-year legal battle over the race that tossed out the rule book, has turned off many fans, says Gary Jobson, the president of U.S. Sailing who has crewed for five Americas Cups teams.

MR. GARY JOBSON (President, U.S. Sailing): This is not a tacticians race. This is Buck Rogers.

NEUMAN: Jobson says fans can forget about the exciting upwind tacking duels, where the lead yacht tries to force an opponent to sail in its turbulent wind shadow. That maneuver requires tight zigzagging patterns these new boats are very good at.

And thats not all that rankles purists. Gone, too, are the muscular crew known as grinders that handle the winches. The new rules allow powered winches. They also permit movable water ballasts that can be pumped from one hull to another to stabilize the boat, doing away with the need for crew to hang over the side to shift wait. Again, Gary Jobson.

Mr. JOBSON: I think those things don't help sailing and takes the athleticism away with the electric winches, the movable ballasts. Im not in favor of those things at all.

NEUMAN: But others argue that the Americas Cup is all about innovation and producing the fastest boats possible. Like it or not, they say, multihulls represent the cutting edge of yachting. Grant Simmer is Alinghis design team coordinator.

Mr. GRANT SIMMER (Design Team Coordinator, Alinghi): Were nearly always sailing at speeds between 20 and 30 knots. So just the sheer speed of the boats and the images both coming off the boat and from helicopter shots will be really exciting. Sure, its different, but I think certainly for the sailing enthusiast itll be really interesting.

NEUMAN: Even so, both sides have hinted that they could rewrite the rules and go back to an open monohull challenge in future competitions.

Scott Neuman, NPR News.

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