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THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE

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1040 Abroad

America's Cup, Formula One of the Oceans

It’s happening now! How is it going, why is it called America’s Cup, and what’s with the flying boats?
Mike Carlson explores extreme sailing.
Published on March 11, 2021

Te Rehutai Te Rehutai, New Zealand's America's Cup boat. Courtesy Emirates Team New Zealand

One of the world's greatest sporting events kicked off March 10 in Auckland, New Zealand, the two finalists splitting their first two races. It's the 36th America's Cup, a sailing challenge race that goes all the way back to 1851. It has what must be the world's longest winning streak, a 132-year domination by the United States, specifically the New York Yacht Club, against the combined sailors of the rest of the world. With some advantages, as they were often able to control the racing terms and settings.

The defenders are Team New Zealand (or Emirates Team New Zealand, a fascinating cross-cultural bit of sponsorship naming) sailing on behalf of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron in a boat named Te Rehutai (which translates, perhaps not literally, from Maori as “where the essence of the ocean invigorates and energizes our strength and determination”). They're up against Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, the challengers from Italy in a boat called Luna Rossa (“Red Moon”) owned by the boss of Prada, but double-sponsored, and representing Circolo della Vella Sicilia, a yacht club in Mondello, north of Palermo. It's a 13-race series; the first team to seven wins gets the Cup.

Schooner America The schooner America, winning the Royal Yacht Squadron Cup 1851. Courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich

It's not like the America's Cup of old, although the trophy itself is still called The Auld Mug. It all started when the schooner America, built by a New York Yacht Club syndicate headed by Commodore John Cox Stevens, sailed across the Atlantic to promote American shipbuilding and win a little cash racing. It was built to the specifications of New York's pilot ships, which had to be maneuverable to guide ships through the harbor, and fast enough to get to those ships first to get their business. Its skipper, Richard Brown, was a pilot based in Sandy Hook. Having won their only match-race after crossing the Atlantic, America entered the Royal Yacht Squadron's £100 Cup challenge, a 52-mile race around the Isle of Wight, getting a dispensation to compete in what was traditionally a members-only competition. As the story goes, when America, having got off to a bad start but made up ground skating through shoals yachts normally avoided, came into view at the Cowes finish, Queen Victoria was told it was America in the lead. “And who is second?” she asked. “Your Majesty, there is no second,” was the reply.

The Cup was renamed in honor of the winner and taken back to New York where it was deeded to the New York Yacht Club as a perpetual challenge cup. And it remained with the NYYC, with races held first in New York and later in Newport, Rhode Island, and successfully defended 24 times. The defenders included three different Vanderbilts, J Pierpont Morgan and even Ted Turner, who unlike many tycoons, actually skippered Courageous himself. But the most famous name in this history was Sir Thomas Lipton, who failed in six challenges for the Cup, becoming a popular figure and household name in America, which was good advertising for his tea, but little realizing his name would forever be associated in Great Britain with weak American tea as a result.

Defender Defender, William Kissam Vanderbilt’s America’s Cup yacht

It was all very gentlemanly, but in my lifetime, three sea-changes, so to speak, transformed the event. First, came the challenge in 1983, when Alan Bond's Australia II defeated Liberty, to finally take the Cup away from the NYYC. It was Bond's fourth challenge, and it gave the Royal Perth Yacht Club the right to host the next challenge. This ignited international attention, and the Australians took full advantage to move the racing into the Twentieth century.

I had covered the Cup, as Sports Editor of the TV news agency UPITN, in 1980 when Bond lost the third of his four challenges. I say covered, but what I did was hire a Newport reporter and cameraman, Jerry Taylor, to provide footage. It was shot, like all our coverage, on 16mm film, from boats far removed from the racing, and occasionally helicopters almost equally distant. My challenge, when the film got back to London the next day, was to try to edit a coherent story of the race and make it look like a race. It was not easy.

In 1983, David Hill was the head of sport at Channel 9 in Australia (who had been our client in 1980) and their deal with the RPYC gave them unprecedented opportunities to locate cameras and bring the audience closer to the action; made easier by operating on that newfangled invention, videotape. Hill's team created imaginative graphics to bring details like wind speed and direction into the action, and for the first time it really was something that could be followed on the screen. Hill would move on to Fox Sports in America, revolutionizing some aspects of NFL coverage, while the ESPN coverage, which was basically a relay of Hill's Channel 9 broadcasts with a camera added for an American angle. This being the USA, it won Emmys for its producer and the channel.

The Americans spoiled the party by taking the Cup back, but the world now had its sailing ears pinned back, and after two successful defenses, in 1996 in San Diego, New Zealand's Black Magic (All-Blacks, geddit?) won the Cup and in 2000 defended it against the first Luna Rossa. But in 2003, New Zealand were beaten by Alinghi, a challenger from Switzerland. Or sort of.

As it happens, I was in New Zealand in 2003, and while I was on the South Island during the racing the national disappointment as Alinghi swept the home boat was palpable everywhere. So much so that later in my stay there was a national debate about whether Russell Coutts, the New Zealander who skippered Alinghi (Coutts had skippered Team New Zealand in 2000) should be eligible for the Halberg Award as Kiwi sportsman of the year. Coutts, and most of his crew, had taken residence in Switzerland to adhere to at least the letter of the rules, and the Kiwi debate revolved around whether, and I am not exaggerating, “treason” against New Zealand should be rewarded. As a side show, there was another debate about whether the national basketball team, the Tall Blacks (All Blacks, geddit?) who had achieved an astounding fourth-place finish in the world championships held in Indianapolis, should win the team award over Canterbury, who had won the Super Rugby title. Fourth place finishers were basically losers and basketball was not rugby, were the arguments, regardless of the extreme unlikelihood of that finish.

Te Rehutai Te Rehutai. Courtesy Emirates Team New Zealand

The final change was brought on by this shifting of national defenders. For most of my lifetime, the race was staged by 12-metre yachts, which had originally been a move to somewhat level the playing field for those not in billionaire status. But in 1988 New Zealand's Michael Fay had challenged with a 27m boat which, because it was single-masted, conformed to the original Deed of Gift for the regulations. A New York court upheld the challenge, so Dennis Connor then commissioned a multi-hull catamaran design, and won the races easily. But Fay got the actual result overturned by the same New York court, arguing the Americans had not upheld the “fair and friendly” terms of the Deed. But that decision was overturned on appeal, and the appeal upheld in the New York State Supreme Court, keeping the Cup in America with the lawyers triumphing in best American fashion.

Nowadays the races are held in various forms of wing-sailed catamarans; the current series is contested by AC-75 monohull hydrofoils. Just as motor racing has evolved from actual cars, to vehicles that resemble actual cars, to specialist racing machines, so has top-class yachting evolved. It's still millionaires commissioning ever faster boats, but the money-men are not the plucky amateurs of old, and their craft are designed with computers and wind-tunnels. Although catamarans are certainly a type of boat whose origins go back through millennia, today's boats, laden with sponsor logos, are redolent of Formula One.

And given modern technology, cameras are everywhere on board, and coverage is close enough to the boats to get a real sense of the incredible speed at which they sail virtually over the water, at speeds of up to 50 knots. It's a far cry from Jerry Taylor and my cutting 16mm film.

This year, Luna Rossa reached the final in a three-way qualifier, beating Team Ineos of Great Britain, who had knocked out the New York Yacht Club's American Magic team. Ineos is typical of the modern competition, run by Grant Simmer who has won America's Cups for his native Australia, as part of the Swiss Alinghi team, and with the 2013 OTUSA American winners. Sir Thomas Lipton might find himself at a patriotic loss, but I'm sure he would be thrilled.

The coverage, which is available on live streams online, is certainly as close as most of us are ever going to get to the thrill of racing with the wind, and I say that as someone who has crewed a J-boat, which involved crouching in a hatch and throwing the spinnaker up when called for, then gathering it up and stuffing it back in the hatch when it wasn't. I like the America's Cup better.

Schooner America America, with a slightly different rig, after winning her eponymous Cup. Courtesy Library of Congress

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