Magic Moments at the Jubilee

One quiet August morning in Cowes, I looked around the marina and counted 35 12-Meters, a fleet that included former America’s Cup defenders Columbia (1958), Intrepid (1967, 1970), and Freedom (1980). Many of the vintage designs had crews aboard who were veterans of past campaigns, methodically preparing the boats for a day of racing. Suddenly a tender fired up its engines and broke the silence by blaring Australia II’s fight song, "Down Under" by Men at Work. The basin erupted in applause, and the America’s Cup Jubilee came alive.

None of the sailors aboard the 16 yachts that raced around the Isle of Wight on Aug. 22, 1851, could have imagined that a century and a half later a fleet of 208 boats would pay homage to their regatta in the same waters--especially since, as our British hosts joked, they were celebrating a "150-year losing streak." But together, the Royal Yacht Squadron and the New York YC did the sport of sailing a favor by organizing this ambitious, yet flawless week of racing.

Russell Coutts’ crack team topped the modern 12-Meter fleet aboard South Australia, and Francesco de Angelis’s Prada team beat the other Cup campaign teams in the International America’s Cup Class. But there was an atmosphere on the waterfront and on the water that was more important than the results by far.

Cowes oozes history from every corner, and one could imagine that 150 years earlier many of the buildings in town were already old. From the water, the shoreline is relatively unchanged, in particular the Royal Yacht Squadron castle at the harbor entrance; it was built in 1539.

At the opening ceremony, nine former winning Cup helmsmen were introduced to thunderous applause from 2,800 people--a magic moment akin to having nine Super Bowl MVPs appear together. Simply walking along High Street meant seeing one Cup legend after another. Dennis Conner was stopped repeatedly for autographs, and the story was the same for Bill Ficker, Ted Hood, Halsey Herreshoff, Alan Bond, Michael Fay, John Bertrand, Bruno Troublé, Sir James Hardy, Sir Peter Blake, Buddy Melges, Tom Whidden, and Russell Coutts. Ted Turner wasn’t there, but ever present was the dean of American yacht design, Olin Stephens. Now 93, he raced during the day, continually talked about new design ideas, and still had time for the endless social whirl.

The Jubilee reminded me of the time when passion was the driving force for amateur sailors to race in the Cup. Today’s secretive, campaigns are fueled instead by massive budgets for professional sailors and lots of R&D.; I saw Cup newcomers Ernesto Bertarelli (Switzerland), Patrizio Bertelli (Italy), and Peter Harrison (Great Britain) and wondered what European style the Cup might take on next if one of them prevails in 2003.

The Jubilee was a living history featuring generations of racing yachts. This was particularly evident during the Round the Isle of Wight race, in which yachts dating back to 1868 started first. Throughout the afternoon the faster boats passed close to the slower boats, rewarding everyone with a glimpse of yachts from different eras. It felt like a James Butterworth painting coming alive. Never mind that the old heavy displacement vessels were slow compared to the 12-Meters, the J-class boats, and the present day America’s Cup Class racers. Each still looked magnificent, representing the swiftest designs of their day.

The replica of America, built in 1967, sat on a mooring off the Royal Yacht Squadron. With her aft raked masts, America is still fast and powerful. In the words of one 1851 observer, "She’s frightening." The original America sailed around the island in 10 hours, 37 minutes, and today’s boats sailed around in half the time, showing how far design and technology has progressed. But some things remain unchanged: the currents were swift, the winds capricious, and the mark roundings crowded.

Out on The Solent, thousands of boats carried countless spectators. On the shoreline, thousands jammed every point of land. Normally I’m bothered by spectator boats cluttering the racecourse. But not here. I had to chuckle as many small boats anchored right in the path of the racing fleet. There was a lot of cheering. From a distance, the J-class boats towered over all other craft, and I finally understood why so many non-sailors followed the Cup races in the 1930s. I came home thinking today’s boats are fast, but just not big enough to catch the public’s interest. America’s Cup boats should stand out from all others.

The sesquicentennial America’s Cup Jubilee created a renewed sense of excitement for the Cup, an appreciation for tradition, and an awareness of the evolution of design. It also rekindled the notion of, as written in the America’s Cup Deed of Gift, "a friendly competition between foreign countries."

The author steered the 12-Meter Hissar (ex-KZ 5), and served as MC of the opening ceremonies.