Crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge, one glance westward reveals a Bay littered with white and multi-colored sails. Day sailors, cruisers, kids single-handing and the towering, 131-foot sail wings of the America’s Cup boats.
Vying for the 34th America’s Cup, first awarded to America in 1851, today’s boats are anything but classic. Each carbon-fiber yacht measures 72-feet long, 46-feet wide, weighs 13,000 pounds and is powered by a 13-story carbon-fiber-and-Kevlar fixed wing sail.
Suspended on foils made of engineered carbon-fiber, the AC72 flies over the water at speeds in excess of 50 mph.
The AC72 is considered to be overpowered and shorthanded. With an 11-man team, crew members are exceptional professional racers and multi-talented athletes.
Meet Shannon Falcone, a Grinder with Oracle Team USA.
Falcone grew up sailing and racing. At the age of three, he and his parents left Italy on a 44-foot sailboat, racing their way to the last event of the season, Antigua Sailing Week. “We met a lot of people there,” said Falcone, “and we just stayed.”
“I was lucky in Antigua,” he said. “We had ex Cup sailors racing with us and my dad and mentor, Carlo Falcone competed in the 1992 Olympics. I loved the competitive spirit.”
Seeing the America’s Cup trophy in Auckland, New Zealand during the family’s 1999 around-the-world sail piqued his interest and he wanted to be involved.
“Mike Toppa, my friend and America’s Cup veteran, told me to start with a small team, so I joined Mascal Vone Latino for my first campaign,” said Falcone. “I did every race and gained experience. It was the best advice.”
Falcone was noticed by the Italian Luna Rossa organization and raced with them for three years before moving to Larry Ellison’s Oracle team. At age 32, this is Falcone’s fourth America’s Cup campaign since 2003.
Oracle Team USA is headquartered in a state-of-the-art facility at Pier 80 in San Francisco, close to where Falcone moved three years ago so he could bicycle to work. “I love to eat and San Francisco is a cool city with great food,” he said. “But I don’t want to commute. There is too much traffic.”
It’s a good thing he loves food because Falcone and his teammates train six hours per day, burning as much as 9,000 calories. “There is food available to us at all times,” he said. “We eat all day long plus we carry high-energy drinks, gel caps and bars when we’re on the boat.” Bound by overall weight limitations, six-foot, five inch tall Falcone will weigh 225 pounds during the AC Finals. Average crew weight is 204 pounds.
Preparing for the America’s Cup is physically grueling; both on and off the water. According to Falcone, race days have shorter on-the-water time but are more mentally intense and pressured. Work days begin early in the morning and often end well into the evening hours. The two Oracle AC72s are assembled before each practice and race, then taken apart at the end of the day. Down from a crew of 17 in the 2007 monohull campaign, the current 11 team members multitask on board and as on-the-ground support. “Some work with electronic and electrical systems or boat designs,” said Falcone. “I work with our personal gear.” The skintight full-body suit needs to breathe and allow a great range of motion yet be lightweight and thin. Neoprene it is.
“The G-Forces are unbelievable on the turns around the marks,” said Falcone. “We have to hold on or get swept off.” But once they stop, the loss of body heat and the ability to stay warm is a challenge. “We have massive stay-warm jackets and huddle down in the cockpit, with only our heads in the wind.”
Falcone has the highest respect for the Oracle syndicate. “There are no rock stars,” he said. “We worked through a lot of trying times, stepped past the limit and became stronger as a team.”