MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
America's Cup sailing has returned to an old New England venue with a brand-new event. Newport, Rhode Island, is hosting the America's Cup World Series this week. This is a new off-year competition, and the boats are revolutionary.
Bradley Campbell of Rhode Island Public Radio takes a ride with one of the top young sailors in the world.
BRADLEY CAMPBELL, BYLINE: They call him the pitbull. He was a childhood boxer from Australia who left the ring for the sea. His name is Jimmy Spithill. He races for Team Oracle. He's the youngest man ever to win the America's Cup, and he arrived in Newport skippering a class boat that's reinventing the game.
JIMMY SPITHILL: The boats are relentless. They are the most physical thing we've ever sailed and the most exciting thing we've ever sailed and then probably the most demanding.
CAMPBELL: The boats are high-tech catamarans called AC45s. They're made of carbon fiber and powered by a giant vertical wing. They're smaller versions of the vessels that the sailors will be skippering in the official America's Cup next year in San Francisco. And they arrived in Newport for the final leg of the World Series Regatta. It's been held at stops all across the world to gin up excitement for the big race. Sailors like Spithill want to show people that sailboat racing has moved past the days of Ted Turner in a blazer, and the series also allows sailors to get comfy with the high-tech craft because, as Spithill says, they're dangerous.
SPITHILL: These things, you get rewarded for pushing hard. You push too hard, you tip over, and you crash.
CAMPBELL: So as you can imagine, I was nervous when Team Oracle invited me to come aboard the craft and hang off the back end.
SPITHILL: There's almost no directions given. Everyone knows exactly what they're doing at the right time, in some ways, just like a very, very intricate dance.
CAMPBELL: The boat kicked up to 24 knots or so, and it became too windy to record. One hull lifted out of the water, and the sailors of Team Oracle leaned their bodies over the side. We balanced at a 40-degree angle, slicing through the waters crowded with pleasure boats. These catamarans are what have the city of Newport excited. And even though this isn't the America's Cup, the chairman of the local host committee, Brad Read, says that with the right sailing conditions this week, the event just might knock the Top-Siders off the locals.
BRAD READ: I'm really hoping it's windy because the people are going to just see something that they've never seen before.
CAMPBELL: One local excited to show off his backyard to a new generation of international sailors is Halsey Herreshoff. Though their name is often mispronounced, the Herreshoffs are like royalty in sailing. Halsey's grandfather designed and built the first catamaran back in the 1870s, and Halsey Herreshoff has sailed all across the world from the Mediterranean to the Baltic.
HALSEY HERRESHOFF: And then I come back here, and I look out at my window, and I see Narragansett Bay, and I think to myself, yeah, those places were all great, but this is the best.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND BLOWING)
CAMPBELL: Back in Narragansett Bay, Team Oracle and Jimmy Spithill passed me off to a tender after a short ride. The team had work to do, and this new breed of sailing doesn't permit deadweight.
SPITHILL: In the past, you carried guys on board that didn't have to do anything physically: navigator or tactician. And, frankly, a few of them didn't really look like athletes. Now, you don't get carried on these boats. If you can't put in some serious horsepower into the boat, the guys ain't going to carry you around.
CAMPBELL: Spithill hopes the new boats will grow the sport. He wants people to view it like NASCAR on the water. And as he threads his racing machine through the waters off Newport, leaving the pleasure boats in his wake, you can't help but think that he might get his wish because as every NASCAR fan knows, speed sells. For NPR News, I'm Bradley Campbell in Providence.