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America's Cup racing "resembles flying rather than sailing"

Germany's most successful yachtsman, Jochen Schümann, told DW that Germany could use its know-how to contest a future America's Cup event but it sailors also have a task at the next Olympics.

The America's Cup is the oldest and most prestigious sailing event in the world. But this year the race has polarized fans like never before.

The billionaire Larry Ellison invested big money in the Oracle USA Team; it developed new twin-hulled catamarans, which are much faster than previous racing vessels, and made racing more dangerous.

The has generated exciting television footage and in recent weeks drawn unprecedented crowds to the bay of San Francisco to watch the drama unfold.

Three-time Olympic sailing gold medalist Jochen Schümann is the only German national to have been in an America's Cup winning team, twice – as part of the Swiss team Alinghi in 2003 and 2007.

Deutsche Welle: Were you surprised by New Zealanders' strong showing?

Jochen Schümann: Yes, definitely. I was really surprised that their development concept enable them to be out there so early and with only one boat. They were obviously so good that they were able to match defending Oracle Team USA. Even more than that.

It appeared that the defending team of the software tycoon Larry Ellison of Oracle Corp. was far better placed; hardly any other team could keep pace with the development [of the catamaran]. That proved to be not the case.

Obviously the Team New Zealand technicians and yachtsmen are very clever and had just the right concept from day one. Otherwise, they would not have been able to prepare themselves on time and within their budget. It seems the races are getting closer and closer.

"More like an aero plane"

We saw how spectacular the races are these days. The boats really seem to fly over the water, how does that work?

Well, first of all the catamarans have two hulls, that makes them more stable; it's as though they are standing on two strong feet and that enables them to carry a greater sail area.

We can't really call them sails anymore; they are more like the stiff wings of an airplane. It is similar with the dagger boards [poking down through each hull] that work in the water like additional wings. They ensure that the wind is transmitted into extreme thrust and energy; when the boat travels fast. It lifts up out the water; only the wings remain in the water. The rest of the boat flies. I think we are closer to flying than sailing.

Oracle Team USA sails their AC72 during a practice run before the seventh race of the Louis Vuitton Cup in San Francisco, California on August 24, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

'The catamaran lifts off the water and then we really are closer to flying than sailing.'

The boats have broken all speed records at the America's Cup and the Oracle Team's skipper has admitted that if feels a bit like Formula One racing. That kind of a comparison begs the question of how dangerous a small error can be and whether such boats are at all manageable. In the eighth race the New Zealand Catamaran nearly capsized – can you explain what happened there?

Basically, the Kiwis handled that really well. They managed at the very last second to prevent the boat from capsizing and being damaged. Aside from the two yachtsmen on the windward rump who found themselves more than ten meters above the water, the other crewmembers didn't blink in astonishment; they just continued grinding really hard and ensured that the catamaran was tipped back into its normal configuration. It cost them a penalty, but they saved their boat.

The crews are well-prepared for all eventualities; they have life vests, as well as knives and other equipment to help them escape should the catamaran capsize and should they be trapped underwater, under the netting. And there are boats that follow both catamarans as they race. Organizers strive for the best-possible safety precautions..

We saw how dangerous it can be back in May when British double Olympic medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson (Team Artemis) died. This capsize accident was a tragic lesson and organizers cancelled races in strong winds [above a maximum of 23 knots or 42 kilometers per hour, 26 miles per hour]. Sailing fans then criticized that step, saying perfect sailing weather had been sacrificed and asked if that had anything to do with sailing?

It's naturally a pity that the wind strength rules are so tight. Originally, we were all prepared to build boats that would sail somewhere between 3 and 30 knots [55 kilometers per hour] Now, it's been reduced by about a third to just over 20 knots. For us spectators it would be more exciting if both teams could sail at higher wind speeds.

What kind of a future do you foresee for the America's Cup? How will the competition develop?

That's one of the crazy things about the America's Cup: It is unpredictable. It is different from other sports competitions that take place according to the same rules and regulations each time. Instead, the country that wins the Cup gets all the rights to decide on the organization, the location, and the class of boat. In principle, all the rules are newly written by the winner. Will it be with the same twin-hulled catamarans? Does it remain in San Francisco? Does it go back with the New Zealanders to Auckland?

Dearth of German sailing medals

From the outset a German team was not in the contest, with the exception of the Cup's youth competition in which the German all-in team ended up coming ninth. Skipper Philipp Buhl and his team organized the funding for Germany's participation in the Youth America's Cup. You were opposed to German participation – why was that?

Because I believe that you have no real chance to compete if you as a top athlete are unprepared for a competition. I think the outcome proves my point: Our [youth] team came in ninth out of ten – that's not exactly a result to be proud of.

Despite that I can understand the boys, who saw the emotional chance to be close to the America's Cup and to sail against others for the miniature version of the Cup; even if they were not well prepared, and even if they had to invest 100.000 euros ($135.000) out of their own pockets. That is a damn lot of money!

What it really criticize and what I have little understanding for is that they expended so much money for such a tiny chance of success. Where the real chances lie are in the campaign for the next Olympic Games, because they should be aiming for Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and medals. For some time we have seen in Germany how difficult that is. For a long time we have managed no medal wins in Olympic sailing events.

You were the only German yachtsman to have ever won the America's Cup – with Switzerland's Team Alinghi. How do you see the chances of a German team in the future?

Germany is an industrialized nation and sailing is a highly technical sports code. To combine both at a competition is naturally only logical. I think it would benefit Germany to show all that we can in a technological event and that we have good sailors. I hope that the format of a future America's Cup will be more attractive, so that German companies, German research institutes, and, in particular, German yachtsmen have a chance to compete for Germany at the starting line.

The moment will come when a German team will take part and perhaps it is even possible, that we win the Cup and bring it to Germany.

Jochen Schümann is one of Germany's most successful yachtsman to date. He was born in East Germany in 1954 and started sailing at the age of twelve, embarking on a successful career: He won three gold medals at Olympic games in 1976, 1988 and 1996 and was a German participant in the Swiss team Alinghi that won the legendary America's Cup (2003 and 2007).

The interview was conducted by Deutsche Welle's Olivia Fritz.

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