By Tessa Walsh
MUSCAT (Reuters) - The world’s top sailing teams are gearing up to battle for points to carry forward to next year's America’s Cup as sailing’s Formula One equivalent arrives in the Middle East for the first time with two days of racing in Oman on Saturday and Sunday.
Light wind conditions in the opening event of the competition’s World Series (ACWS) in Muscat are set to test sailors including Britain’s four-times Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie and defending America’s Cup champion Jimmy Spithill.
The Oman races kick off a key year in the competition of six high performance 45-foot twin-hulled AC45F catamarans, which can travel at speeds of over 30 knots (55.56 km per hour) and rise up on a hydrofoil wing as they accelerate.
There are five qualifying races before next year’s 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda, which is sailed on larger catamarans, from which teams can earn points to carry forward into the next stage of the competition.
The America’s Cup, known as the "Auld Mug", is the oldest competition in international sport.
The event gives skippers a chance to get back on the boats, assess the competition, and further develop the light wind skills and tactics that could be crucial in Bermuda in 2017.
It pits a range of powerful skippers with big personalities against each other, including former team mates Spithill and Ainslie, who are lying in second and third places in the series respectively behind Emirates Team New Zealand, skippered by Peter Burling.
Sweden’s Artemis racing won both practice races, however, and Dean Barker’s SoftBank Team Japan and Groupama Team France are expected to provide tough competition after racking up most training hours on the boats over the winter.
Groupama will be skippered by Adam Minoprio after Franck Cammas nearly lost his foot when falling off the back of the boat in a training accident in December, highlighting the demands the high-tech boats put on the sailors.
“It’s like rugby when you’re foiling and there’s a chance you’ll get injured. We’re wearing helmets and impact vests for a reason. There’s always a risk but at the end of the day, that’s part of the appeal, pushing the red line," said Australian Spithill, skipper of ORACLE TEAM USA.
Although AC45F racing can be fast and furious, light wind sailing requires a different set of skills including weight distribution and smooth movement which are more difficult to get right and could lead to upsets in the results.
“It’s not easier for any team. We could have light air in the America’s Cup and these are skills that we need to have,” Ainslie said.
The focus is Sunday’s racing, when the teams race for double points.
The ACWS, now in its second year, will visit New York, Chicago, Portsmouth and Toulon this year, with a possible sixth event in Tokyo as it continues its bid to bring state-of-the-art sailing to a wider international audience.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)