From the Crow’s Nest | THE SCENE
A BRIEF HISTORY
It all began in 1851 as a “friendly competition between foreign
countries,” when America and Britain’s most prestigious yacht clubs—
the New York Yacht Club and the Royal Yacht Squadron—raced each
other one-on-one around the Isle of Wight. The NYYC’s schooner
America won the showdown, thus the Cup’s name.
The trophy, known as the “Auld Mug,” was donated to the NYYC in
1857 under the terms of a Deed of Gift, a legal document residing with
the New York Supreme Court that allows other countries to challenge
for it in a one-on-one match race.
The Deed of Gift also sets out many
of the rules and guidelines for the
race. Like most sports, these rules
and regulations have evolved drastically over the years to encourage
favourable elements inherent in the
game. Unlike most sports, the ability to make such changes has always
lain with the current champion.
It’s this quirk that is at the heart
of the America’s Cup fans’ displeasure. The reigning champions get
to select the venue and rules for
their title defence, including what
kind of boats are used. To put this
in context, imagine if the winner of
the Super Bowl was allowed to change the rules for the following NFL
For 127 years the reigning America’s Cup champion was the NYYC,
until they were beaten by the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s Australia II in
1983, ending the longest winning streak in the history of professional
sports. During that time, the Cup experienced few changes.
Teams raced on 65- to 90-foot yachts owned by wealthy sportsmen
until 1958 when the NYYC made changes to the Deed of Gift to allow
smaller, less garishly expensive 12-meter class yachts to compete. A
selection series was also started in 1970 to accommodate multiple challengers, the winner of which earns the right to race the defending champion. In 1990, the boat designs were changed again to the International
America’s Cup Class (IACC), which was used until 2007.
ELLISON’S COMMERCIAL VISION
While there had been grumblings of displeasure beforehand, it
wasn’t until Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing, representing the Golden
Gate Yacht Club, won the Cup in 2010 that these voices really started
to be heard.
For the 2013 contest, Ellison “set a goal far more daunting than
simply securing another trophy as the world’s finest sailor: making the
America’s Cup financially viable.” The most high-profile change in pur-
suit of this goal was the introduction of a new kind of boat: the AC72.
Instead of the lugubrious single-hulled boats of old, the 2013
contest was raced on two-hulled catamarans that fly above the water
on hydrofoils, reaching speeds near 50 mph. The rationale was that this
high-speed iteration of sailing would attract people unfamiliar with the
sport through sheer spectacle alone.
While the 2013 America’s Cup was most certainly a spectacle, it left
many of the sport’s oldest fans angry, for myriad reasons. Continu-
ing with the NFL analogy, Ellison’s changes are akin to replacing the
traditional pigskin football with something produced by Nerf, allowing
quarterbacks to huck the ball 90 yards with a flick of the wrist. If the
thought makes your skin crawl, that’s precisely how many fans feel
about the current Cup format.
“…it’s terrible. It’s embarrassing.
These boats are too extreme, too ex-
pensive,” read a 2013 opinion piece
in the New Zealand Herald.
“Having a pure speed contest in
one-design multihulls is no longer
the America’s Cup. The old Deed
of Gift is in tatters,” wrote author
In the simplest of terms, winning
in a monohull match race requires
controlling your opponent and find-
ing the shortest distance between
markers; winning on foils is done
by losing the least amount of speed.
This emphasis on speed—com-
monly referred to as “velocity made
good”—means skippers and tacticians approach things very differ-
ently from what the average sailing fan is used to seeing and analysing.
The argument is that in the quest for speed, the nuances that made
the sport of match racing have been lost. “The racecourse becomes a
lottery as teams bounce off course boundaries, praying they’re in phase
with Mother Nature,” as one writer put it. It’s no longer “a thinking
man’s game,” rather it has become the ultimate test of fund-raising and
Furthermore, the change has repercussions for sailing as a whole. As
the pinnacle of the sport, becoming part of an America’s Cup team is
the dream of top sailors everywhere, but very few have access to flying
catamarans. This means the majority of competitive sailors are learning
and training an entirely different skill set than the one required at the
top of the game.
A DIFFERENT TYPE OF SAILOR
For the best illustration of this, look no further than the current skip-
per of Sweden’s Artemis Racing, Nathan Outteridge, widely regarded as
one of the sport’s most promising talents.
Back in 2012, I and some other Bermudians living in London packed
our bags for a quick jaunt to Zadar, Croatia. It was the 49er World
Championships, and the last chance our friends Jesse and Zander Kirk-
land had of representing Bermuda in the London Olympics.
As relative newcomers to the 49er—a skiff that emphasises pure
speed over tactical nous—the Kirklands’ progression up the rankings
was more impressive than it might seem. Like a foiling catamaran, the
America as she appeared in 1851.