Cats & DOGs: The Mercury Bay Challenge

The most controversial America's Cup race ever, and the two unusual designs that faced off for the Deed of Gift match in 1988.

In 1988, one of the most infamous showdowns in America’s Cup history took place. After Dennis Conner won back the cup in 1987, New Zealander Michael Fy launched a challenge against the US. The battle came down to two wildly different designs, a massive 90-foot monohull sailed by the Kiwis, and the first foray into the word of catamarans, the American Stars & Stripes. the match sparked controversy over the design rules laid out for the America’s Cup and led to a heated battle over the ethics and legality of sailing multihulls.

The Big Boat: KZ-1 New Zealand

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KZ-1, New Zealand, the Kiwis' ambitious monohull that pushed the Deed of Gift design rules to the limit.©Dan Nerney 1988

Michael Fay’s challenge against San Diego Yacht Club brought back the original rules of the Deed of Gift, a surprise to the American’s who intended to keep the cup in 12-metres. The New Zealand entry, dubbed the "Big Boat" weighed in at 39 tons, 120 feet over all, and boasted a 90 foot waterline, the largest waterline allowed by the original deed. The unusual carbon fiber design was a far cry from the 12 meters that the cup sailors were used to.

The challenge would be skippered by David Barnes with a massive crew of 40 sailors from the Mercury Bay Boating Club in New Zealand. The Big Boat, while fast, would face a shorter battle on the water than off after facing down the American entry.

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The First Cat: Stars & Stripes

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Stars & Stripes the American defender for the 1988 Mercury Bay Challenge and the multihull to be sailed in the America's Cup.Marshall Harrington

An unusual challenge with an unusual challenger, the American syndicate, led by Dennis Connor sought an equally out-of-the-box solution to the Mercury Bay Challenge. After reviewing the Deed of Gift design requirements, the team recognized that multihulls were not expressly prohibited and set about crafting the first ever America’s Cup Catamaran. The team worked with boatbuilders and aircraft manufacturers to create their unusual defender.

The team tested two versions and settled on the catamaran that sported a wing mast – a direct precursor to the cats of today. To no one's surprise, Stars & Stripes handily won challenge, securing the Cup for the Americans once again. For the moment…

The Aftermath:

After the Challenge was completed in New Zealand, a lengthy battle off the water began. New Zealand, angry over the unsportsmanlike use of a catamaran was determined to prove the multihull entry violated the Deed of Gift. Initially, the Kiwis were successful, and the trophy was awarded to New Zealand after a court case.

However, the decision was overturned after an appeal by SDYC, an the Cup was awarded back to the US. Fay, who believed that Stars & Stripes violated the spirit of friendly competition between nations laid out in the cup attempted an appeal in New York, but lost. The America’s Cup was once again secured by the US in the most controversial match in the sport’s history.