Dylan Cleaver explains why the America’s Cup action off the water has often been more compelling than the races on it.
No sporting event crystallises the idea of rich boys and their toys more than the America’s Cup. The early challengers were railway barons, blue bloods and trading tycoons while the defence of the Cup relied on names that still resonate in the United States today, like Forbes, JP Morgan and Vanderbilt.
The post-war events attracted new money from the new world, with names like Packer, Alan Bond and Michael Fay laying down challenges, and CNN creator (and Mr Jane Fonda) Ted Turner defending.
Their riches, however, seem quaint compared with the latter-day billions of Bill Koch, Raul Gardini, Patrizio Bertelli, Ernesto Bertarelli and Larry Ellison, the giants of the modern America’s Cup.
Whenever there is money, trouble tends to follow, and controversy has gone hand-in-hand with the Auld Mug ever since America won the Royal Yacht Squadron’s trophy by racing around the Isle of Wight faster than the local boats then mistakenly engraving “100 Guinea Cup” into the silver.
Never mind, it would be simply known as the America’s Cup from that moment on, and as you’ll read, mistaking a guinea for a pound is small beer to some of the chicanery that’s gone on since.
1871: The two-boat defence
Railway tycoon James Lloyd Ashbury lost the first two races to New York Yacht Club’s Columbia but his Livonia was well placed to prevail in the best-of-seven match race after the defender was dismasted in race three. However, the NYYC simply replaced Columbia with Sappho for races four and five, which they won.
That’s more like it. Up to this point, the controversy lacked a sharp edge but that changed with the Earl of Dunraven’s challenge aboard Valkyrie III. The RYS entrant was 1-0 down and disqualified from the second race, which it won on the water, after colliding with the Vanderbilt-backed defender called, simply, Defender. Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin was the sort of earl who didn’t take news like this lying down. The Boer War freelancer accused the NYYC of cheating and promptly had his honorary membership revoked.
Sir Thomas Sopwith was most notably associated with the Sopwith Camel, the fighter plane used with chilling effect to bring down Fokker Triplanes during World War I — and Snoopy’s choice of vehicle in his legendary imaginary dogfights against the Red Baron — but he was also an America’s Cup challenger.
His Royal Yacht Squadron-backed challenge with Endeavour should have beaten Harold Vanderbilt’s flawed Rainbow. Sopwith, however, was forced to crew his yacht with amateurs after his professional crew went on strike over pay. Despite winning the first two races in what was described as a comfortably faster boat, poor mistakes and tactics saw them lose the following four.
World War II had pressed pause on such frivolities as sailboat racing and post-war economic conditions continued to have a stalling effect. To try to excite interest, the NYYC went to a 12-metre rule, which is still seen by many as the classic America’s Cup class.
For the first time, it attracted a challenger from outside the UK and Ireland, with media baron Sir Frank Packer, who would spawn Kerry, challenging in Gretel and Gretel II, named after his first wife who died in 1960.
Packer was a bit of a rogue but his family name would remain inextricably linked with another Australian, one who was finally able to do what a bunch of millionaires before him couldn’t …
1983: Advance Australia unfairly?
Alan Bond’s fourth challenge with Australia II was notable for the addition of revolutionary designer Ben Lexcen to the team and it was his “winged keel” that made the difference, so much so that the NYYC tried to have the boat disqualified by the measurers. Kept under wraps in its modesty skirts, the winged keel became the most famous apparatus in sailboat history and something of an Australian cultural touchstone.
The boat, skippered by John Bertrand, beat Dennis Conner’s Liberty and for the first time since racing transferred from New York in 1930, the regatta would not be held at Newport, Rhode Island, instead moving to the Western Australia port city of Fremantle.
1987: Plastic fantastic
With Fay Richwhite’s backing, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron entered the America’s Cup — and it was a brilliant and spectacularly controversial entrée. The hull of the Bruce Farr-designed 12-metre yacht Kiwi Magic was made from fibreglass, sparking suspicion from all the other challengers. French Kiss protested, while Conner, challenging on behalf of the San Diego Yacht club in Stars and Stripes 87, used the C-word. “There have been 78 12-metres built, all in aluminium. Why would you want to build one in glass … unless you wanted to cheat,” he asked, charmlessly.
1988: Big boat
Quite why there is an appetite to display this emblem of extravagance in permanence outside Auckland’s Maritime Museum is anybody’s guess. Fay used the rulebook to launch a Deed of Gift Challenge. Farr designed a really, really big boat, 90-foot big — KZ-1.
SDYC rejected the challenge but was forced to race it by the New York Supreme Court. What followed was farce, with Conner arriving on the start line with a catamaran.
The best-of-three series was a grotesque mismatch, with Stars & Stripes USA-1 winning the only two races required by close to 20 minutes apiece. They were only that “close”, KZ-1 skipper David Barnes said, because Conner sailed them so poorly, perhaps deliberately so.
“I’m sailing a cat; someone else is sailing a dog,” said Conner with his usual good grace.
It wasn’t over, unfortunately. Fay went 9:28 to court in 1989 and won. However, the Appellate Division overturned that result, which eventually stood. All in all, it was a tawdry waste of a lot of time and money. But hey, it makes for a weirdly unimpressive waterfront landmark.
1995: Sunk cost
In 1992, Bill Koch, part of a family empire that to this day essentially funds the ultra-conservative arm of Republican Party, won the defender series on America³ (called America Cubed), and they in turn handily defeated the first non-English language syndicate to win the Louis Vuitton challenger series, Il Moro di Venezia, headed by billionaire industrialist Raul Gardini, who was to die in highly suspicious “no suspicious circumstances” a year later.
A bigger story emerged in 1995, though. That would be OneAustralia racing Team New Zealand and literally splitting in two as it folded like an old banana skin in heavy conditions, the 17 crew swimming to be rescued by chase boats while their craft sunk to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Rod Davis and Iain Murray had a short conversation as the carnage unfolded.
Davis: “Big fella, are we going to sink?”
Murray: “Yes, we’re going to sink.”
In the footage, you can see two sailors lingering on the bow long after the rest of the crew had disembarked.
1996: Cup bashing
According to contemporary reports, Ben Nathan, who later changed his name to Penehamine Natana-Patuawa and later to Moemoea Mohoawhenua, saw the Cup as a symbol of oppression and believed none of the money made from hosting the event would reach Māori in need. It was a reasonable assumption to make, though reasonable assumption did not equal reasonable action.
On March 14, Nathan entered the RNZ Yacht Squadron, asked to see the Auld Mug, smashed the glass and across the course of approximately 50 blows, mangled the 125-year-old Cup. A frenzied and bleeding Nathan was restrained until police arrived and arrested him.
At the time,Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron Commodore John Heise said: “The Cup has been very, very badly beaten up.”
AtNathan’s trial, lawyer Lorraine Smith, who would later become famous for successfully representing Chris Kahui at a high-profile murder trial, claimed that Nathan felt a moral and legal right to attack it under the Treaty of Waitangi and the Declaration of Independence.
It was a novel yet unconvincing defence and Nathan was sentenced to two years and 10 months, reduced on appeal to one year.
Garrards, the silversmiths who had created the Cup, took three months to restore the trophy, gratis. It was flown back to New Zealand first-class.
2000-2003: Defection to defective
Team NZ beat Luna Rossa 5-0 in the first final not to feature an American syndicate. What happened after the victory would be more interesting.
The New Zealand syndicate lost Russell Coutts, Brad Butterworth, Murray Jones, Simon Daubney, Dean Phipps and Warwick Fleury to Bertarelli’s squillions at Alinghi and the country went a bit apes***.
The Swiss would beat the hosts in 2003, helped massively by the defenders producing a yacht that couldn’t get around the course without either taking on water or breaking.
One of the indelible moments in America’s Cup broadcast history is the camera panning in and seeing a Team New Zealand crew member frantically trying to bail water out of the boat with a blue bucket.
“That does not look normal,” deadpans commentator Tom Whidden.
It was a shambles of a defence from start to ugly finish.
2010: Billionaires' BS
Alinghi, representing the Societe Nautique de Geneve, defended the Cup successfully in Valencia, Spain — on account of the country of Switzerland being landlocked. (The deed specifies that races must take place on the “sea or arm of the sea”, not a lake.)
Things got really ugly as a few ludicrously rich boys started throwing toys all over the place, the end result being another masculinity race-off between two priapic multihulls in 2010.
The tantrums started following the 2007 defence, when Alinghi essentially created a yacht club — Club Náutico Espanol de Vela — to act as Challenger of Record, then overreached by creating stupidly self-serving protocols.
Oracle owner Larry Ellison did not like this one bit and threw his bowl of spaghetti hoops off his high chair.
The Golden Gate Yacht Club filed its own challenge and asked for CNEV’s to be disqualified. As with the challenge’s best-forgotten ancestor, the Mercury Bay or “Big Boat” Challenge, it was decided in bitterness in the New York Court of Appeals and resulted in an off-the-water victory for Ellison over Bertarelli.
The Deed of Gift match took place in Valencia in 2010, with the trimaran USA-17 too fast for catamaran Alinghi 5.
2013: Death on the water
The result of the above victory saw the America’s Cup undergo a dramatic makeover.
Catamarans in the form of AC72s replaced the monohulls and racing would move from offshore to inshore, stadia-like settings.
The racing promised to be faster and far more spectacular, particularly when rumours were confirmed that Team New Zealand’s Aotearoa was seen to be capable of stable hydrofoiling.
A technology race ensued but there was a significant casualty before racing started, with Swedish entry Artemis — who had replaced Club Nautico di Roma as Challenger of Record — capsizing in training.
Andrew Simpson, a 32-year-old British Olympic gold medallist, suffered blunt trauma to the head during the accident and was subsequently trapped underwater for 10 minutes.
His drowning triggered massive safety reviews and recommendations and starkly brought home just what a different realm of sailing the America’s Cup had moved into.
2013: … Like a lead balloon
While all the retrospective headlines about the 2013 America’s Cup race focus on the Jimmy Spithill-helmed Oracle Team USA 17 coming from 8-1 down to win 9-8 against Dean Barker’s Aotearoa, the more pertinent point might have been whether they should have been allowed to race at all.
The defenders were caught cheating. It was shockingly blatant and unambiguous. In an America’s Cup World Series event in 2012, Oracle was caught using bags of lead pellets to provide ballast outside of allowed areas, handing them a massive advantage.
The penalties included the expulsion of three team members, a quarter-million dollar fine (Oracle, Ellison’s software company, made $37,180,000,000 in revenue in 2013), and the loss of two points in the America’s Cup match race.
Many still believe the appropriate penalty for such skulduggery was disqualification.
Team New Zealand thrashed Oracle in scaled-down cats in Bermuda in 2017, using innovations such as cyclors — pedalling grinders — to easily outstrip the competition.
In a move that has never been satisfactorily explained, Team NZ moved away from the Russell Coutts-inspired cats and back to monohulls for the defence — although unlike their predecessors, they would be foiling monos.
The change in class and associated research and development costs has proved too much for the bulk of interested parties and just three challengers arrived on the start line.
Those that did get here were greeted by one of the stranger America’s Cup stories: that the host organising committee had been spied on from within.
That story included doozies about Hungarian bank scams, court injunctions against media, confidential reports and alleged misspending of public money; this is not the time and place to dig deeply into any of it.
But it provides an apt way to wrap this up: since the middle of the 19th century, the action off the water has often been more compelling than the races on it.
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