When the yachts take to the water in San Francisco Bay in July for the first race of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the prelude to the 34th America’s Cup, it will be a sight unlike any yacht race (let alone any America’s Cup race) in history. Crewed not by sailors clad in elegant nautical white or navy blue but by super-fit athletes wearing crash helmets, body armour, and even oxygen tanks (lest they get caught under the hull in a capsize), the AC72-class catamarans will bear little resemblance to any previous America’s Cup yacht, beyond the fact that they float. With massive wings replacing the mainsails, the high-tech giants seem to have almost as much in common with aircraft as with yachts.
And yet, in so many ways, this summer’s competition will be just like every America’s Cup since the first, in 1851; although played out in the guise of a yacht race, it has always been as much about drama, involving high technology, vast expense, James Bond–worthy espionage for discovering competitors’ design secrets, towering egos with fortunes to match, and controversy that is just a heartbeat away from litigation (and which occasionally does reach the courtroom). It has attracted the world’s greatest sailors—from Olympic gold medallists to round-the-world race winners—and has been funded by household-name tycoons from Sir Thomas Lipton to Harold S. Vanderbilt to CNN founder Ted Turner to Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, the current defending champion. For the larger-than-life characters involved, the Cup has trailed scandal and near-bankruptcy in its wake. This is all part of its completely logic-defying attraction to men who are where they are in life due in very large part to their cold-headed logic in the boardroom.
Those willing to sink fortunes into taking part struggle to explain why. Last October, Patrizio Bertelli, the CEO of Prada and principal of the team Luna Rossa Challenge (back this time for a fourth tilt at the trophy), described it as “fundamentally absurd, when you think coldly that it is just two boats racing each other,” adding that it is “extreme,” “compelling,” and “definitely an obsession.” Merchant banker Sir Michael Fay, who kick-started New Zealand’s long involvement in the Cup by funding its first challenge in 1987 (back in the day when being a mere millionaire was enough to do so), says, “For me and, I think, many like me, a lot of the appeal is that it is just so darned hard to win.”
Hard it is: in more than 150 years, the trophy has been taken home to only four different nations—the United States, Switzerland, Australia, and New Zealand—and the U.S. was the victor for the first 132 of those years. Not because others lacked great racing yachtsmen or excellent boats for them to race on, but because the peculiar nature of the event means that what happens off the water can be just as important as what happens on it, and the advantage is always to the home team. In 1934, when Thomas Sopwith’s British challenger Endeavour, seemingly on the verge of winning, was penalized by the jury, the cry went up: “Britannia rules the waves, but America waives the rules.” Whether justified or not, that became a mantra for generations.
It was not until 1983 that Alan Bond’s Australia II, representing Royal Perth Yacht Club, was able to break the longest winning streak in the race’s history, ending the New York Yacht Club’s stranglehold on the defence. That’s how hard it is to win.
America’s Cup is played out in the guise of a yacht race, but it has always been about drama and James Bond–worthy espionage for discovering competitors’ design secrets.
As great things often do, America’s Cup began somewhat by chance, when the owners of the schooner America won a race around the Isle of Wight against Britain’s finest and fastest yachts in 1851. (It was the schooner, not the country, that gave the trophy its name. It takes an apostrophe, and purists never use the definite article. It is simply “America’s Cup”.) Watching from the shore, Queen Victoria asked which yacht had come second. The famous reply, “Your Majesty, there is no second,” has defined the fiercely competitive spirit of the trophy ever since.
Given the participants, America’s Cup quickly became more than just a regatta. There is no fixed frequency, although in practice America’s Cup is held every three to five years; the defender decides where and when the next Cup will be held. For the first 132 years, it was hosted from New York Yacht Club’s summer clubhouse at Newport, Rhode Island, defining and defined by the social season of that wealthy enclave. During races, a fleet of grand and elegant spectator yachts, many belonging to the participants, held lunch parties for the social set; in the evenings, casual post-race drinks on the dockside were followed by dazzling dinners and balls.
Over the years, the status of those taking part assured the standing of the social life around the regattas; along with a series of Vanderbilts, the early competitions brought John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan and the fourth Earl of Dunraven. In the 1970s, Baron Marcel Bich both funded and competed in four French challenges (thanks to a fortune made in Bic ballpoint pens), followed in the early 1980s by Fiat founder Gianni Agnelli and Prince Karim Aga Khan, who funded the first team Azzurra campaigns for Italy. Europe’s yacht-loving royals, such as Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf, King Juan Carlos of Spain, and Prince Albert of Monaco, and a new generation of American entrepreneurs all added to the heady mixture.
In this era of the megayacht, little has changed beyond the sheer scale of things. In Auckland in 2000 and 2003, and keeping with New Zealand’s reputation as a sailing heaven with an easygoing style, the wharves were lined with 30-, 40-, even 50-metre sailing yachts—gorgeous craft from builders such as Perini Navi and Royal Huisman—whose owners had used the opportunity to mingle with their peers as the ideal excuse to make the long journey. Very large motor yachts were fewer in number, dominated by Oracle Team USA owner Larry Ellison’s 138-metre Rising Sun. (It’s one of the world’s biggest yachts, and it was recently acquired by music mogul David Geffen.) And in Valencia in 2007, it was as if the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show had been concertinaed into the Mediterranean summer season, with the marina completely sold out—even at a cost that was about five times higher than for the Monaco Grand Prix. (Ernesto Bertarelli, the head of the defending team, Alinghi, paid just a shade less than half a million dollars to tie up his 47-metre Vava for the duration.) The parties on the yachts and ashore, day and night, were legion. There is little reason to doubt that it will be much different in San Francisco (no matter the widespread grumbling that the event has been “ruined” by the change in format). Such is the allure of America’s Cup.
But back to the reason for being there: The owners of America donated the 100 Guinea Cup, as the trophy was first called, to the New York Yacht Club, as a “perpetual challenge cup for friendly competition.” Governed by the Deed of Gift (the set of rules that governs the competition) of the America’s Cup, it follows a strict format: only one yacht may challenge the defender in a series of match races. And that yacht must represent a bona fide yacht club—even though the glory tends to be claimed for the club’s nation. In 1970, multiple potential challengers began to come forward, leading to the creation in 1983 of the Louis Vuitton Cup, sponsored by the namesake French company and fashion house. In this, the would-be challengers must race each other for the right to compete for the America’s Cup itself—in similar vein to sports playoffs.
The old saying about yacht ownership being like standing under a cold shower and ripping up $100 bills is simply quaint in this company; perhaps if there were such a thing as a million-dollar bill, it would be closer to the mark. Whereas the 1958 defence of the Cup cost $500,000—no small sum in those days—the figure had risen to $16-million by the time Dennis Conner skippered Stars & Stripes to victory in Perth in 1987 (ending the shortest winning streak in America’s Cup history). Every time, there are calls to keep the cost of competing under control, and every time, it gets higher. Bill Koch spent $64-million to keep the Cup in the United States in 1992. Failing to win the Cup cost Patrizio Bertelli approximately $80-million in 2003, and Larry Ellison’s bill for the same result in 2007 was $130-million. This time around, in a supposedly “economy” version designed to keep costs under control, team Oracle’s defence has already passed the $100-million mark, according to informed observers.
Describing it as “ridiculously out of control, expensive” in an interview with Bloomberg in February, Emirates Team New Zealand’s managing director, Grant Dalton (who is respected in Cup circles as one of the most tenacious competitors, on and off the water), complained with some justification, “Billionaires’ egos get to set the criteria.” But ironically for an event celebrated for its links to the grand tradition of yachting as practised by the “gentleman sportsmen”, it has always been more or less thus (albeit millionaires’ egos before inflation added more zeroes).
Watching from the shore, Queen Victoria asked which yacht had come second. The famous reply, “Your Majesty, there is no second,” has defined the fiercely competitive spirit of the trophy ever since.
And the prize? Ostensibly, it’s nothing more than a lumpy, ugly piece of 19th-century silverware nicknamed the “Auld Mug”—and a lot of glory. But there is a great deal more, for the simple reason that the defender not only decides where and when the next Cup will take place but also has a tremendous amount of control over how it will be run and how the Deed of Gift is interpreted (and that’s the immeasurable home-team advantage).
Larry Ellison decided that America’s Cup could be a great deal more populist—that it could have the appeal of Formula One (to which it is often compared in terms of technology, cost, and the attendant glamour) or NASCAR (which lacks the glamour and high technology but offers plenty of crashes to keep audiences entertained). The key, in the memorable words of Russell Coutts, CEO of Oracle Team USA, was to “meet the expectations of the Facebook generation, not the Flintstones generation.”
One way of doing so was to develop a new class of boat, one that would sacrifice everything to speed—which by definition meant a multihull (to the horror of yachting purists everywhere). The statistics of the new AC72 catamaran are impressive: the wing mast is 40 metres high, equivalent to a 12-storey building; the jib (the smaller of the two foresails) is 80 square metres, while the gennaker is 320 square metres. But looking up at the Luna Rossa AC72, as it sits in its giant aluminum cradle in a hangar-like shed on Auckland’s waterfront, truly brings home the scale of the thing: the two hulls are so far apart that they scarcely seem connected, and the bow of the mirrored silver hull seems to disappear with the curvature of the Earth.
On the water, even watched from a safe distance, even at low speed, the power is visceral, almost frightening; it’s felt as much as seen and heard. These are very dangerous beasts (“too dangerous” according to Patrizio Bertelli). They can sail at twice the wind speed, but they are extremely finely tuned and skittish. If one were to flip sideways, the crew members on the windward rail would fall nine metres or more—a height from which hitting the water is like hitting solid ground.
Operationally as well as aesthetically, the catamarans are as different as possible from the elegant pre–Second World War J-Class yachts that define much of America’s Cup history and even the agile, narrow-hulled 12-metre class that raced for three decades following the late 1950s.
These days, the fact that the teams have had to adjust their strategies to catamaran sailing is no deterrent: Oracle established a smaller class, AC45, as a kind of “trainer” yacht that would also compete in the America’s Cup World Series (ACWS), a circuit that would run during the “off” years, to maintain momentum (and audience interest). Nobody knows what will happen when the giant cats race at close quarters (or even if they can be raced at close quarters). With the smaller boats, the ACWS has already provided some spectacular pileups at mark roundings. And Oracle has shown how things can go wrong on an AC72 even in moderate, straight-line sailing: while training in San Francisco Bay last October, the yacht pitchpoled, completely destroying the wing. If Larry Ellison really does want a nautical NASCAR, it seems that he has got it.
There’s little doubt that this summer’s racing will be fast and furious. And the ambience will be different: while the superyacht socializing will continue as ever, the dockside will be different. Large grandstands are being built, and it’s been reported that more than 60 per cent of the seats have already been presold.
Whether the changes are good or bad for the future of America’s Cup as yachting’s most prestigious trophy remains to be seen. One thing is certain: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. America’s Cup will keep on being reinvented. It cannot be otherwise when the host writes the rules. Nor can it be otherwise when there’s such a wondrous mix of egos, money, and some of the world’s finest competitors, determined to do what they do best, out on the water. Meanwhile, for those hooked on the game, only one thing matters: “The goal is to win it,” says Patrizio Bertelli. “You have to insist—never give up and try to win it if you have the necessary means to do so.”