By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Spectators at the 34th America's Cup will be subjected to bag inspections but no one expects metal detectors and hour-long lines like those that greeted tennis fans at the US Open in New York last month.
In fact, with fewer competitors than anticipated taking part in the preliminary racing this summer, the crowds at San Francisco's waterfront were significantly lighter than planned for and merited a reduced police presence, said Sergeant Dennis Toomer of the San Francisco Police Department.
"Because the boaters have scaled back, we've scaled back," he said. The crowds have been so light, he said, that "sometimes it's hard to decide if people are out there for the America's Cup or for a walk."
Federal, state and local law-enforcement officers say they have spent more than two years planning security for the series of 17 races that starts Saturday. Lessons from the April's Boston Marathon bombing have been incorporated and crowds will be monitored from land, air and sea.
Security measures including canine units, police bicycle patrols and an 87-foot Coast Guard boat will be in place to protect thousands of onlookers as Emirates Team New Zealand tries to wrest the coveted sterling silver cup from software billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA on San Francisco Bay.
"We have a lot of eyes out there," said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Michael Lutz.
Starting Saturday, spectators can watch for free from the shoreline as the big American and New Zealand catamarans duel for the world's oldest sporting trophy. Onlookers must first pass through turnstiles where guards will inspect their bags.
Moguls like Ellison and politicians like Mayor Ed Lee will have their private security, like they always do, said Tom Ehman of the Golden Gate Yacht Club, sponsor of Oracle and the America's Cup event.
Ellison chose to defend the Cup in his home waters after winning the prize in Spain in 2010. The American team also developed the idea of racing in the fast but hard-to-handle, hydrofoiling, twin-hulled yachts.
The radical design of the 72-foot catamarans raised the price for participating in the races to more than $100 million and reduced the number of contenders from an anticipated dozen to just four.
Organizers initially estimated millions of sailing enthusiasts from around the world would be drawn to watch the match between two 72-foot catamarans capable of reaching speeds faster than the 45-mile-an-hour limit on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Captain Matt Bliven of the U.S. Coast Guard said the Department of Homeland Security was being regularly briefed on the event and monitoring it.
Toomer said his department always employs special precautions on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. No races are scheduled on Wednesday, which is reserved for the competitors to rest and repair their yachts.
He said the SFPD has nonetheless treated the preliminaries and will treat the final series of races like any other of 300 major events it covers every year. "Just about all our major events, we bring out all the stops," he said.
What exactly the stops are neither Toomer nor the FBI would say. San Francisco police have had an undisclosed number of officers specifically assigned to ensuring safety at America's Cup events for the past two years, according to city documents. Last spring, Bliven said, a few hundred officers from various agencies trained for controlling large crowds at the final races.
The yacht club's Ehman said race organizers worked with law enforcement to take security lessons from past America's Cup races.
"You have to take everything that's gone on in the world since September 11 and the Boston Marathon," he said. "As usual, you plan for the worst and hope for the best."
One of Ehman's top security concerns is protecting the 162-year-old trophy. When not on public view the "Auld Mug," as it is known, resides in an undisclosed location protected by two security guards.
"It's invaluable, irreplaceable," he said. "It would be like losing the Mona Lisa."
(Editing by Alden Bentley)