TO WIN THE AMERICA'S CUP. That singular ambition has beguiled and bedeviled a select group of sailors and schemers, boat builders and billionaires, inventors and litigators over a span of generations. Since the trophy was first awarded in 1851, the ornate sterling-silver cup has been passionately coveted and hotly contested on both land and sea.
At the inaugural race around the Isle of Wight in England, 15 yachts from Britain’s Royal Yacht Squadron competed against a revolutionary new 101-foot schooner from the upstart New York Yacht Club. The winner of that race, the aptly if somewhat unimaginatively named America, crossed the finish line more than 8 minutes ahead of the pride of the British yachting fleet. Queen Victoria, watching the race at the finish line, is said to have asked which yacht came in second. The reply, which would come to define this iconic race: “Your Majesty, there is no second.”
The triumphant crew of the America brought the trophy – and the attendant bragging rights – home to the fledgling NY Yacht Club. They renamed the trophy (originally known as the RYS £100 Cup or Queen’s Cup) in honor of their victorious yacht – and specified that the newly christened America’s Cup be held in trust as a perpetual challenge trophy to encourage “friendly competition” among nations.
"The Yacht 'America' Winning the International Race," oil on canvas, by the American artist Fitz Hugh Lane.
From its earliest days, the America’s Cup seemed destined to incite controversy. In a twist hard to imagine in any other sport, the governing committee endowed the winner of each America’s Cup race with the right to set the rules and choose the venue for the next race. For the next 132 years of the cup’s existence, that “home team” advantage proved impossible to surmount – and bitter rivalries developed among competing nations amid charges of rigged contests and stacked decks.
From the first challenge for the trophy in 1870 by British railway tycoon James Ashbury...to the upset by the Australian team with their secret winged keel in 1983…to the 35th America’s Cup race to be held in Bermuda in September 2017, charges of foul play and disputes over rule changes have resulted in legal battles every bit as hard-fought as the actual match races. Disputes over everything from scoring and course changes, to yacht construction and the definition of “friendly competition,” have spilled over into the courts.
Despite the many controversies, the siren song of the America’s Cup has continued to lure contestants to a race that has always been as much about innovation and technology as about strategy and seamanship. With enormous budgets driving a sailing “arms race,” the most extreme and expensive yachts ever built have taken to the seas to compete for the “Auld Mug.” Since the cup was finally dislodged from the NYYC in 1983, only four countries (the U.S., Australia, Switzerland and New Zealand) have managed to bring the coveted trophy home.
Every defender of the cup has exercised the right to change the parameters of the race. Over the years, the design of the yachts, size of the crew, and length/number/timing of the races have all changed dramatically. What hasn’t changed is the massive collaborative effort required to compete in such an exclusive and expensive event. No matter how big the ego or the wallet of an individual challenger or defender (think Harold Vanderbilt, Ted Turner and the Aga Khan, to name just a few), no one can go it alone. This particular dream requires an enormous team of engineers and event organizers; sponsors and strategists; helmsmen and lawyers to make it a reality.
In preparation for the 2017 America’s Cup, the defender, Team Oracle, led by internet magnate Larry Ellison, employed a 15-person design team to create a cutting-edge wingsail foiling catamaran that will soar above the water at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. While it will be a far cry from the massive wooden sloop that sailed around the Isle of Wight in 1851, this seafaring marvel extends the long America’s Cup tradition of pushing both human and technological capabilities to the limit in pursuit of the oldest – and in many ways the most storied – trophy in the sports world.
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