In the world of competitive sailing, winning the America’s Cup signifies the best—the best team of sailors in the best boat in the world. And it’s quite the prize—as the oldest trophy in international sports, the America’s Cup title has switched countries only six times since it was presented by its creators to the New York Yachting Club in 1851. Now, it’s coming to Newport. The cup itself, an ornate sterling silver ewer, is actually named after the first boat to win the race, a schooner named the America, not the country it represents.
After capturing the trophy, the inaugural winners then donated the cup to New York Yachting Club under a deed that dictated the trophy become a “perpetual challenge cup for friendly competition between nations.” Any yacht club that met the requirements stipulated in the trophy’s deed had the right to challenge and gain stewardship of the cup. From the New York Yachting Club’s first defense of the title in 1870 against England, up until 1970, single challengers who had raised enough money to field both a suitable vessel and the team to pilot it raced against the defending champions. Each championship race had new rules, due to technological sailing improvements and disputes over unfair regulations. The first Finals were a simple race around an island, but courses later became more complex, requiring sharper turns and a higher caliber of seamanship. The earlier years had fleets pitted against each other, but today, competition among ships of the same fleet forced the race into the familiar format that we see to this day: a one on one race to the finish.
In 1970, for the first time in its history, there were multiple challengers for the title. The multiple challengers had to compete in a separate series of competitions to earn the right to race for the cup outright, as opposed to earlier years, when challengers were so scarce that whoever wished to vie for the cup had right to race for it by default. In 1983, Louis Vuitton began sponsoring the Challenger Selection Series, a pro circuit of races in which teams race against each other in sort of a “regular season” with certain point values given to respective place finishes in the races. The Louis Vuitton Cup is given to the eventual winner of the circuit, the team that had amassed the most points, and the team which will challenge the defending club for America’s Cup. This final race is now known as the America’s Cup World Series, and the last stop of its 2012 circuit is scheduled in Newport, Rhode Island.
The Cup’s marketers have called it “the hardest trophy to win in sports,” ostensibly because it has only switched hands six times. This monopoly, however, may not be attributed to the difficulty of the competition itself, but the flaws and history of competitive sailing itself. The fact that there have only been 33 challenges in the Cup’s storied 165 year history speaks to immense wealth required to host and finance the Finals. The Finals aren’t just about the races. Like the Olympics, there is much hype and fanfare leading up to the sailing, and the actual event required a lot of space and capital and time, in addition to fielding a noncommercial team of boats and sailors, expensive in its own right. Competitive sailing, in its original formation, was a game of titans. It was where Irish tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton tried unsuccessfully to win the cup for England in five separate challenges, all the while always joking with his American Hosts and earning his reputation as the “lovable loser.” His last gasp in 1930 pitted elite against elite. Lipton was bested by none other than Harold Vanderbilt, the then appointed defender of America’s honor. While skill and seamanship arguably won the race, the real point of the races became a muscle-flexing contest between magnates and barons, where equipment mattered as much as skill.
Recently, with new class requirements mandating that all ships be of the same make and dimensions, the sport has become more egalitarian. There are now over nine teams in the current circuit, and each has a fair shot to take the cup. The coordinators of America’s Cup have also branched out and, through the race’s internationally syndicated broadcasts, have roused a heightened awareness of environmental the oceans. The World Series is intended to take America’s Cup all over the world and promote a sport laden with stigmas of privilege as an event everyone can embrace. Streams of each race are available all over the world through YouTube, enabling viewers to pick a team to follow all the way to the finals.
An April 11 breakfast for the Newport press covering the race began with such a live stream, from a World Series event happening in Naples. To the original winners of the Cup, the footage would have looked completely unfamiliar. The boats themselves are now catamarans, two carbon fiber bullet-shaped hulls strapped together with a 90-foot sail that looks more like a parachute than a sail sticking out of it all. The course in Naples was little less than an acre wide. It was filled with pylons that the ships had to navigate (think slalom for boats). The phrase “flying on water” is totally applicable. These boats, adorned with Puma and Louis Vuitton stickers, were laser fast, gliding across the waves.
At such an extreme pace, even the strongest sailors have been known to choke. For example, a boat from the Swedish Artemis Racing team which had led the majority of a race, overshot a pylon and then tried to make up for the lost distance by turning sharper than the boat allowed. The front of the vessel dipped underwater, and the room of reporters collectively groaned.
Realizing their mistake, the crew braced for the inevitable. It only took three seconds, but effect was impressive. The Artemis 2 capsized, its sail flimsily drowning in water like the wings of bee trapped in water.
The Newport races, scheduled from June 23 to July 1, will take place in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay directly off Fort Adams. In a tour of the site, Cup Host chairman Brad Read gushed about the infrastructural improvements to the race site and the potential for international exposure to put Newport back on the map.
“Remember those aerial helicopter shots of Naples we saw this morning? Now imagine it here. Sweeping all across the bay, over Fort Adams and ending near the mansions. The whole world is going to see how beautiful Newport really is.”
Governor Lincoln Chafee and the State of Rhode Island are also getting in on the action, giving Newport $1.2 million in state dollars to cover both restorations on Fort Adams and the largest standing stone fort on the east coast, and the creation of an auxiliary parking lot and accompanying shuttle to accommodate the estimated 60,000 spectators for the June races. An economic-impact analysis by the R.I. Department of Revenue estimated the event will generate nearly $51 million in direct spending on construction, marine trades, hotel rooms, restaurants, transportation and retail. Another $21 million is expected from ancillary services and consumer spending.
The coordinators rode the PR line hard. “We’re proud to be one of the few New England towns to have its original planning and infrastructure intact. You’re walking on history,” said Keith Stokes, a member of the RI Economic Development Corporation. “When people come to see the races, they won’t just see good racing, they’ll discover a hidden gem on the New England coastline.”
Coverage from the 1977 America’s Cup in Newport noted that “Newport’s most famous family is The Very Rich; her second is the US Navy; and her third is the normal folk.” But today, as a town that survives mostly on curious tourists meandering through its Gilded Age mansions labeled as cultural heritage, and that has seen its population decline by 50% in the past 40 years, maybe all the excitement stems from a yearning to be relevant again.
The only sailing-related question at the breakfast was: “Will there be wind?”
The reply: “Always. From the southwest.” And the discussion moved on.
ALEX SEOH B’14 can’t wait to see those swooping helicopter shots on TV.