Going to Extremes

The Extreme Sailing Series, a worldwide racing circuit starring high-powered Extreme 40 catamarans, is on its way to the United States.

Now in its fifth season, the series features 11 teams loaded with veteran sailors whose resumes include everything from world championships to the Olympics to the America’s Cup. Among the nine scheduled stops this year are the Sultanate of Oman, England’s Isle of Wight and Boston, Massachusetts—the first time the series has come to the United States since its inception in 2007.

Races regularly attract tens of thousands of fans—many of them landlubbers—who turn out to see the fleet mix things up and enjoy the party atmosphere on shore. At the Boston regatta on June 30-July 4, spectators will be treated to everything from a live band to an air show by the Red Bull Air Force, while kids can blow off some steam on a climbing wall.

“For me, as a non-sailor, this is as exciting as it gets in sailing,” says real estate developer Joseph Fallon, whose 21-acre Fan Pier park and marina on the South Boston waterfront will host this year’s regatta. Fallon believes the series could finally strike the spark that creates a sailing audience here on par with the one that exists in Europe.

Mark Turner, executive chairman of OC ThirdPole, the company that manages the series, agrees. “The circuit has come a long way since 2007, when we had just four European events and five teams,” he says. “We are getting closer to the perfect mix of established iconic cities, premium venues, great sailing destinations and emerging markets.”

According to Turner, the Extreme Sailing Series is “changing the way sailing is seen,” bringing sailing to the people rather than the other way around. “Judging by the crowds that turn out, it’s the right way to do it,” he says, pointing to last year’s regatta at Cowes Week, which attracted about 60,000 spectators. “(Cowes Week) has been going for over 100 years, but never before have there been crowds lining the shore five deep until the Extreme Sailing Series.”

At the heart of the Extreme Sailing Series is the Extreme 40 catamaran, basically a scaled-up carbon-fiber Tornado with speed to burn. But there’s a lot more to both the series and its success than just the boat. Courses are kept short and sharp to provide maximum drama. A typical race lasts just 15 minutes and collisions are not uncommon. Then there is the “stadium” approach to the event, which keeps racing and viewing areas in close proximity so fans can hear what’s going on, as well as see it.

Of course, comparisons between the Extreme Sailing Series and the new America’s Cup “world series,” to be held aboard wing-sailed 45-foot catamarans, are inevitable. Everything from the inshore course format to the boats themselves seems to be cast from much the same mold. Two of the teams competing in this year’s Extreme Sailing Series, Artemis Racing and Emirates Team New Zealand, freely admit they are using it as a warm-up for the America’s Cup.

Turner says there’s plenty of room for both series. “We are flattered to be copied,” he says. “Multihulls are the sharp end of the sport of sailing right now…with the America’s Cup continuing in catamarans, it enhances the appeal, but it’s complementary, not a competitor.”

Traditionalists who feel such events somehow debase the sport of sailing should not be fooled by the graphics and onshore entertainment. Ultimately, the Extreme Sailing Series is about a bunch of great sailors maneuvering a bunch of great boats under extremely challenging conditions, and they’re doing it in such a way that hundreds of thousands of people around the world want to see the show. What’s wrong with that?

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