Watching the spectator fleet at the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup Qualifiers in Hamilton, Bermuda, turns out to be nearly as much of a treat as taking in the action on the racecourse. And race organizers have gone out of their way to make sure those who’ve managed to get their boats to the island (or chartered a vessel already on site) will not be let down by what they’ve modestly dubbed “The Greatest Race on Water.”
Ashore, the race village is packed to capacity on weekends when the actual racing takes place. Meanwhile, skippers can pay a relatively modest daily fee ($35 for boats under 40 feet; $15 per foot for those over 40 feet) to take a front row seat and take in the circus all about.
On Team Oracle’s last day of racing before the Cup itself, we began our adventure on Painkiller, a Moorings 4800 crewed-charter cat, with a motor trip across Great Sound to Hamilton, where we picked up several guests for the afternoon. Along the quay, the stately J Class yachts that will be racing later in the month sat tied side-by-side, surrounded by super yachts, mega yachts and mega-mega yachts. The collective bling was blinding.
By noon, we joined a steady stream of ferries, sailboats, powerboat, jet skis, trawlers and all manner of small motorboats snaking their way out of the harbor. Outside, the three-masted Maltese Falcon held court at one end of the course as crews in turquoise-colored RIBs set out orange buoys marking the boundaries for spectators.
Each day, race organizers send out emails alerting skippers to where they’ll be anchoring. On this particular afternoon, we were in luck and set up a few hundred yards from the port windward mark.
We quickly settled into a lunch of finger food, champagne and rum swizzles as we watched the foiling AC50s warm up. Then shortly after 2 p.m., the VHF radio crackled to life with the day’s live broadcast of racing. Several of our guests, mostly all new to finer points of yacht racing — but quick studies on the social aspects of The Cup — took their drinks and headed to the trampoline to kick back and watch boats whiz by. The rest of us crowded around Painkiller’s raised helm station and watched Jimmy Spithill and the Oracle boys outduel Team Emirates New Zealand in what many believe was a preview of the grand acts to come.
It was breathtaking watching the cats soar straight for us, tack toward the windward gate, then jibe and quickly vanish downwind. On the second leg, when Oracle rounded the windward mark again and regained the lead it had let slip away, horns sounded up and down the course. Next to us, a fan uncorked a bottle of bubbly and sprayed his mates in joy. Moments later commentators called the finish and you could hear cheers erupt from the fans ashore.
Between bouts — there were four in all — race organizers reset their marks to accommodate a slacking wind, and as they did so, course marshals reset their boundary lines accordingly. It was all very civilized, of course. Each spectator boat was approached and told it would need to re-anchor slightly farther back, or later in the afternoon, were urged to move closer in to the action. Rather than drive us off, their intent was to make sure we were as close we could get to the racing, and they worked diligently to ensure each spectator had a clear view.
All afternoon the revelry flowed along with the rum, making a late afternoon swim while anchored back in Hamilton a very welcomed refresher. Then with the sun setting, it was time to board the RIB for a ferry ashore to the media welcome. Time to party and toast the Cup.