The Espionage Behind the America’s Cup Yacht Race

Oracle team member: “We see a few spy boats out there so we know they’re watching us.”

Inside a cavernous white room amid the ramshackle piers of San Francisco’s Southern waterfront, a group of men in white industrial suits scrape away at what looks like a long Styrofoam canoe.

Men in matching black jackets emblazoned with the Oracle logo nervously scan the group of media invited into this top secret room within the yacht racing team’s massive headquarters at Pier 80.

The canoe-like structure will eventually make-up half of the hull for the team’s 72-foot catamaran that will compete in the 2013 America’s Cup yacht race.  For now, the design is strictly under wraps.  

“We’re working hard to come up with the best mousetrap to win this event,” said Dirk Kramers, one of the Oracle Racing Team’s catamaran designers. “We’d just like the other guys to figure it out for themselves and not show them what we’re doing.”

Above the curtained area where the hull is coming together, a giant sign says “Top Secret,” just in case visitors didn’t get the message. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was allowed in. So was San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. For everyone else – it’s "keep out."

Nearby, in a less guarded area, crews of technicians in lab coats pour over the 45 foot catamarans serving as the team’s practice vessels, and prototypes for the 72-footer. 

“Little by little we have it being filled out,” said Kramers, surveying the giant warehouse where the team moved nearly a year ago. “It almost looks like a movie set being built in here.”

About 100 people work in the 345,000-square-foot warehouse at Pier 80, crafting sails, maintaining boats and working on new designs. There is plenty of racing history on hand to get their competitive juices flowing.

One wall is draped with a timeline of every major development since the first America’s Cup race in 1861. Looming overhead is the 223-foot wing from USA-17, Oracle’s winning entry from the 2010 America’s Cup --  tall enough that it wouldn’t be able to sail beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. 

But the majority of the headquarters is distinctly aimed toward at future of the sport.

The design of the 72-foot catamaran is expected to propel the prestigious sailing regatta to speeds and drama it’s never witnessed before.   

“This will be the first boat of its class,” said Kramers, who has designed boats that competed in previous America’s Cup races.  “Probably two to two-and-a-half times as fast the boats we were sailing 20-30 years ago.”

The prestigious race also bears an intriguing history of espionage. In the past, competitors have employed everything from divers to secret cameras to try and glean bits of intelligence about their competitors' boat designs. Oracle team members say they’ve already spotted spy boats watching their recent practice sessions on the San Francisco Bay.     

“We see a few spy boats out there so we know they’re watching us,” said Oracle racing team member John Kostecki.

Kostecki said there is a set of ground rules on spying within America’s Cup. They call for the spies to remain at least 200 yards away from competitors’ boats.

Kostecki says there is a lot at stake.     

“What we’re developing is going to make the boat go fast, improve its speed,” Kostecki said. “So yeah, that’s an advantage.”

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