America's Cup ready for take off in Plymouth
One of the most costly sporting competitions in the world has just dropped anchor in Plymouth.
Nine wing-sailed carbon-fibre catamarans costing £800,000 each are moored next to a tented village at Millbay in the city's docklands ready for the America's Cup World Series.
The World Series is a regular circuit of regattas at venues around the world, allowing the teams and sailors to prepare for the America's Cup finals in San Francisco next year.
It also brings the spectacle of America's Cup racing to hundreds of thousands of fans around the world, giving them an opportunity to personally experience the action.
Both fleet and match racing will be a part of each event, testing the skill of the crews as never before.
The venues and dates for the 2011 America's Cup World Series will be announced early in the year, with the remaining calendar confirmed later in the coming months.
The racing will be on the AC45 catamarans and 2012 will see America's Cup World Series events in San Francisco, the host city of the 34th America's Cup.
The America's Cup World Series could continue beyond the 34th America's Cup, allowing for a regular calendar of Cup racing to the benefit of sailors, fans, teams, and all stakeholders.
2011 - 2012 AC World Series Schedule
Cascais, Portugal - August 6-14, 2011
Plymouth, UK - September 10-18, 2011
San Diego, USA - November 12-20, 2011
Venice, ITA - May 12-20, 2012
Newport, Rhode Island, USA - June 23 - July 1, 2012
From Saturday and each day next week the sleek craft will emerge from their fenced-off base to battle for honours on Plymouth Sound.
The Sound was chosen as the venue by organisers because it is a natural amphitheatre - allowing onlookers from the hills and cliffs on three sides of the Sound to watch the action at close quarters.
Media director Gary Lovejoy, one of 2,000 America's Cup workers in Plymouth, said: "It's a better view of the racing than anywhere in the world."
At stake for the competitors is crucial preparation for the America's Cup Final in San Francisco in 2013.
There is no British entry among the nine boats, but joining the razzmatazz of the America's Cup for the first time is Team Korea.
Its skipper is Sheffield-born Chris Draper, 33, a yachtsman who won a bronze medal at the Olympics in the 49er class and is a three times European champion.
"The acceleration of these boats is quite incredible," he said, as he helped team-mates put together the carbon fibre mast and sail which makes the boat go so fast.
"It will knock you off your feet."
Vertical wings made of a carbon fibre skeleton wrapped in plastic film rather than soft sails provide forward momentum.
Power is put on by changing the camber of the wing, like extending the flaps on a plane wing.
"It's amazing to sit on the start line, pull the trigger and in a few seconds you are doing 35mph," said Draper.
This is the first year for the AC45s, which are in a different league to the more stately pace of the traditional single-hull America's Cup yachts of the past.
While America's Cup races used to take hours, races in the Sound will last about 20 minutes.
"We have to make decisions very quickly unlike boats in the past when you had time," said Draper.
"It's like the difference between towing a caravan and a Formula 1 car.
"They are very exciting, it's a lot of fun."
Three helicopters and cameras on the boats will be sending pictures of the action live to screens on Plymouth Hoe as the catamarans scream around the Sound.
"I was a little bit surprised when they chose Plymouth," said Draper.
"But it is quite pleasant to be coming somewhere else apart from Cowes, Weymouth or Hayling Island.
"It is really testing because the wind is coming from a height which makes it move and with the tides it is a real tactical challenge."
Funding a campaign like Team Korea's in the America's Cup will cost sponsors and owners tens of millions of pounds.
Plymouth is hoping some of the America's Cup millions will increase its profile as a place to do business in the boating industry.
The city council estimates that it will generate £10m for the city.
More than 700 Plymouth hotel rooms have been booked by competitors and those working in the America's Cup.
In addition the council believes the competition will bring the city to the attention of millions of viewers on the internet and TV.
Vivien Pengelly, leader of Plymouth City Council, said: "It will be a real opportunity for Plymouth to show off its assets to the world."
Draper is happy to admit that the America's Cup is elitist. "The best boats, the fastest sailors" is the motto printed all around the team area.
But he says for youngsters wanting to get a slice of the action, the path ahead is meritocratic, not based on how much money you have.
Taster sailing sessions are available at clubs around the country offering the Sail for a Fiver campaign.
"Taster sessions is how we all got started," he said of his crew, whose average age is 31.
"And you soon know whether you are any good or not.
"It is a little bit more expensive than some other sports but it is a lot of fun.
"I feel privileged doing it for a living."