The Ideal America’s Cup?

To return sailing’s pinnacle event to its former glory, the current stakeholders need to bring back a few traditions.

Ben Ainslie Racing has the right idea when it comes to building nationalistic pride behind its America’s Cup challenge: Its skipper and training base are homegrown and the Union Jack is displayed wherever possible.Mark Lloyd

Several years ago, I was sitting in an audio studio with Walter Cronkite, the legendary news anchor. We were working on a film narration, and he was to speak first according to the script. Cronkite’s first words in his distinct gruff voice were: “The America’s Cup.” As he spoke, with perfect diction and impressive authority, I felt humbled. I wondered how I, with my slightly nasal tone and New Jersey accent, would hold up alongside such an extraordinary narrator. The recording session went fine, but the way he orated those three words left a lasting impression. He made the America’s Cup sound colossal and important.

Over the past few years, however, there have been so many radical changes to this venerable event, to the point that it somehow no longer seems as important today, as if unworthy of Cronkite’s blessing. As I recently pondered this point, I also wondered what the Cup’s current and future stakeholders must do to return the longest-running sporting event to its past glory.

The primary author of the Cup’s original Deed of Gift, George Schuyler, envisioned an international challenge regatta that would be run under the terms of mutual consent. He wanted the competitors to be flexible so they would embrace new designs. Schuyler wrote three versions of the Deed between 1857 and 1887, and there have been modifications to this guiding document over the years to allow smaller boats, such as the 12-Meters, as well as dispensation for yacht clubs hailing from inland waters. The underlying premise, however, was always to encourage innovative yacht design and good competition between nations under the “strictest fair play.”

Schuyler may not have envisioned the use of foiling, wing-sail catamarans racing at high speed, but John Cox Stevens, New York YC’s founding commodore, would surely have endorsed the use of multihulls—his own catamaran was playfully named Double Trouble. Even six-time Cup defender Nathanael Greene Herreshoff designed a series of multihulls. The use of twin and triple-hulled craft are in line with the Cup’s original vision for fast, leading-edge vessels of the day. Big, beautiful, swift, and marvelous boats will attract newcomers to sailing. This was true of the J Class in the 1930s, 12-Meters from 1958 to 1987, and the America’s Cup Class that raced between 1992 and 2007. While it’s heart warming to see many past Cup boats on the water today, I seriously doubt we’ll ever see the AC72s sailing again.

Organizers and competitors of every America’s Cup have a responsibility to use the event to upgrade the sport of sailing. Creative designs of the boats, sails, and equipment should trickle down through the sport. There is a long history of Cup innovations that have helped advance sailing, but for many sailors, the use of gargantuan, high-power multihulls doesn’t relate to the kind of boats most people sail today. Organizers should think hard about the type of boats to race, but ultimately, the competition should foster better skill levels, which eventually help all other sailors.

The Cup has long been a high-visibility contest worthy of front-page real estate. Of late, however, the regatta has lured loyal audiences to television and the Internet. There’s considerable talk of customizing the event specifically for television, but gimmicks are unnecessary to make a good story. The best television of any sporting event is one that keeps the viewer watching until the bitter end. The final result should not be decided until the conclusion of the match. Priorities should focus on close races. Annoying wind delays hurt the sport’s credibility and drives viewers away. To avoid this, the boats must be able to sail in winds from 5 to 35 knots. The racecourse must be designed such that the trailing boat always has an avenue to pass the leader. Too often, the America’s Cup has resembled a parade after the first mark.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Cup is the winner’s ability to take the event to its home waters. Shopping the event to the highest bidder, as was done with the island nation of Bermuda for the 35th America’s Cup, doesn’t feel right. It’s been deemed a commercial venture, which certainly flies in the face of what has been standard practice.

It’s difficult for sailing to stand out in the television landscape. Sports that transcend limited viewership, such as soccer or the Olympics, attract a huge amount of interest. Sailing is a relatively obscure sport, and we seem to get headlines only when there are disasters at sea, or occasionally when something extraordinary happens. A good example would be Australia winning the America’s Cup in 1983, or the San Diego YC successfully challenging 40 months later. These storied moments create tremendous interest and are vitally important for the event in the long term. The current Cup organizers need to embrace the past. The history of the Cup is important: the stories surrounding the triumphs and defeats made great theater, the people playing the game were compelling characters that were available to the press, in an unscripted environment. That’s what also builds a strong fan base.

The 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco was a snoozer until Oracle Team USA made its dramatic comeback. While the boats were intriguing, it really was the human-interest story of the comeback that captured our attention. Even with the high-speed catamarans zipping around San Francisco Bay, in the end, the Cup was far more compelling as a people show, than a boat show. To lift the Cup to the next level, the event would be well served to feature strictly national crews onboard the boats. With the recent change to the AC48, there will be fewer crewmembers required than ever before; surely there is enough talent cast around the world to allow respective nations to fill team rosters.

The design priority for the 35th Defense will focus on computing power, and the use of stored energy to operate hydraulics that control the wing sail and foils. Four of the six crewmembers on the AC48s will spend most of their time grinding winches to power the hydraulic systems. This will require new technology to be developed to store energy to run the boat’s systems. Is this really a good idea? I don’t believe so.

Direct manual power has always been the key to good crew work. In addition, computers will take the guesswork out of strategic decision-making. It seems, therefore, that the event would be more interesting if the sailors had to make the decisions without the use of sophisticated computer assistance.

Before 1970, there was only one challenging yacht club. In contrast, the New York YC always held a Defender Trials to select and train its team. When there were defender and challenger trials, interest in the America’s Cup soared. It was a two-ring circus. The two sides did not race against each other before the Match, which built the intrigue of which team would be stronger. Regrettably, there have been no defense trials since New Zealand successfully challenged in 1995. It’s understandable why the defender wants full control, but this practice limits the number of teams and sailors able to compete. If there are six teams in Bermuda, with six crewmembers per boat, there will only be 36 sailors who get to race (plus a few alternates).

I’m confident the 35th Defense will be an interesting regatta. Bermuda will be a good host. The weather could be challenging at times because frequent squalls blow through the island in early summer. Worldwide interest will be modest, and I predict most fans will be cheering for one of the challengers to take the Cup away from Larry Ellison. Every sport has a hero and a villain to cheer for, and followers will certainly take sides for this one.

I believe the sport of sailing, as well as the America's Cup, would be well served to feature a race where the crew has a greater impact on the outcome of the race. I suggest dramatically reducing the reliance on computers. I prefer to watch new sails being set, an elegant battle to control the start, and lots of maneuvering throughout the race. The sailors should represent the countries from which they come. The interval between matches should be institutionalized at every three years. Close races that allow frequent lead changes must be implemented. Sponsorship is important, but it should be tasteful. The example set by the Masters Golf Tournament is a good template on how corporate sponsorship should be used. I miss the days when the yachts had bold names like: Intrepid, Courageous, Vim, Valiant, or Stars & Stripes. Technological advancements are important in the America's Cup, but so too is the tradition of this regatta.

The die is cast for the 35th Defense in Bermuda. Historically, the focus during the current event is what will happen next? At this writing, every team is hopeful they will prevail. It would serve the sport well to consider what boats, format, and rules will help build the sport in the years ahead. And, then Mr. Cronkite’s rich description would once again be accurate.