Is the America’s Cup Good for the Sport of Sailing?

Is the America’s Cup Good for the Sport of Sailing?

These days, just mention the words “America’s Cup” to any group of sailors and it’s likely that in no more than a few minutes they’ll all be arguing. Gone are the times when this same contingent would wait with bated breath, unified by their love of sailing, to see what beauty would be incarnated for this very special gentlemen’s match race around the buoys – a race that only happens every three or four years. Gorgeous boats would be designed especially for this occasion– the oldest and most dignified major sporting event in existence. Common sailors would await the unveiling of the world’s most foremost yacht designers’ creations only to be sailed by the world’s most decorated and respected sailors. What could be better? What could ever corrupt such bliss? The answer: foiling multihulls.

32nd America's Cup © Chris Cameron
32nd America’s Cup© Chris Cameron

All was well in 2007 when sailing fans from around the world tuned in to see the shiny new graceful and sexy 24-meter monohulls compete in the waters of Valencia in good breezes and sunny skies. Eleven teams from all over the world grinded winches, called tactics and changed sails, not unlike most racing sailors did on their own boats, albeit with some distinct differences. Alinghy beat New Zealand in some very exciting racing and everyone was thrilled, but then it got weird…

Money, animosity, ego, politics and greed became the major players in the 33rd Cup and it all devolved into one of the strangest most public displays of billionaire bizarro world anyone had ever seen. It was compelling for all the wrong reasons, coming down to two very very wealthy middle-aged men spending ungodly sums of money to build one-off boats that were built for sheer speed – an other-worldly 90 x 90 trimaran with a hard wing built by the American team and a 90-foot catamaran with soft sails built by team Alinghi. They hired the best sailors in the world and tried to crush each other. The Americans won the somewhat sad contest and the America’s Cup would never look the same going forward – it was hard wings and multihulls from here on in. Although some loved this sexy, Formula One style speed driven focus, traditionalists lamented. The ability to relate would soon disappear.

In the 34th Cup the world saw 72-foot foiling catamarans with wings that literally looked like they just came off of a jet airliner. The boats would reach velocities that would triple the wind speed with the two feather-light carbon fiber hulls popping out of the water and truly flying around the marks with nothing but an L-shaped foil in the water. Armchair sailors were left with less to say. These races were more about the efficiency of hydraulic systems and airplane wing design than sail trim and racing prowess.

Land Rover BAR's Race boat R1 skippered by Sir Ben Ainslie sailing on the Great sound in Bermuda
© HARRY KH/LAND ROVER BAR
There is a lot of similarity between this boat and an aircraft,” said Xaviar Pol, one of the engineers working on the current America’s Cup 50-foot cats, in a CNN report. “The foil on this boat is exactly like the wing of an aircraft.

Pol went on to say that if you don’t have a proper control system you “can’t have a stable flight.” You read that correctly – designers refer to sailing around the buoys as a “flight.”

But let us not forget – the America’s Cup has always been a design contest first. This fact is often lost on sailing fans that love the on-water competitive aspect of the event. With personalities like Dennis Conner, Russell Coutts and Jimmy Spithill it’s easy to think of the America’s Cup as any other high-level sporting event – a race with teams of athletes that win or lose. The AC is not this. Much of the battle is on the drafting table. Generally speaking, a box rule is in place and design teams are battling away day and night. You can bet they are at it now, tweaking foil designs and control systems that will squeak out another sixteenth of a knot.

So where does that leave us – the sailing fan? Perhaps not in a place we once called home. We no longer look at the America’s Cup boats as gorgeous designs with cutting edge innovations that will one day trickle down to the very boat we sail. We can no longer look at the racing to watch and take notes, applying what we see to our own local habits. Case and point: One of this year’s AC boats actually has a crewman assigned to a power-generating stationary bicycle. The contemporary America’s Cup is a different beast.

Perhaps that’s just the way to approach it – as a different beast. It’s a high-speed spectacle full of NASA style innovation. It’s a trapeze act that began as a sailboat race but still has sailing as it’s beating heart. Let us see it that way and enjoy what lies before us until someone does what can be done in any given America’s Cup – scrap it and start with a completely different concept.

For more information about the 35th America’s Cup visit americascup.com

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Nik

Very interesting

Dwain
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Dwain

As my wife, a former drag race driver, “It’s a race. How much does a top fuel dragster look like a Chevy or a Ford?” Sad but true. Racing is about speed. Hard to swallow for a monohull sailor like myself, but swallow I must.

Mike Martin
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Mike Martin

this is not sailing. I went from loving the AC to the point I could not be less interested. I’d rather be sailing..

Dave Simpson
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Dave Simpson

As a life long sailor, I see the AC principles as being lost years ago. It used to be (fairly) matched boats of same design with the sailors competing in a skills, knowledge, tactics,and endurance test, to prove who was the better team. Although it has always been a rich man’s sport (with the likes of Lipton and other’s bank accounts) it was always the skills of the sailors, not the talents of engineers, techies, and draftsmen. When AC came to San Francisco, 18 miles from my home, I turned down an invitation to see it all for free. If… Read more »

Mike
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Mike

Could care less. The “America’s Cup” is meaningless except to 3 or 4 billionaires. These “things” are capable of operating in only a narrow range of conditions. They aren’t sailboats and have no connection to reality. They might as well be racing blimps or submarines.

Kwinterkorn
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Kwinterkorn

Agree with Mike, but there will always be a lot of audience for raw speed—a sailing equivalent of NASCAR, just watching people go in a circle as fast as they can. Suggestion: create two classes of racing: a go as fast as you can class and a strictly controlled one design class, eg a 1970’s era 12 meter class that is more about the sailors than the boat. Then require each team to race both classes with same personnel on board. The cup goes to the overall winner of points from both classes. Interweave the race days for the classes… Read more »

Doug
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Doug

I thought I read there is a similar effort on SF bay to have 12 meter look alikes made in the country represented sailed by it’s own citizens. Is that still happening?

Member

I like watching the speed and in harbor closeness of the hydrofoils. I also like watching battles of open water of the classic monohulls. There is room for both. Have the race every 1 1/2 years and leap frog the sailing class. This will give 3 years for each class to design and these designs will filter to the yachting industry in both classes. We get to see more racing. Also, change the name from America’s Cup to the World Cup or Global Goblet. (I don’t like these names, but not America’s). Also, put limits on the money so the… Read more »

Arly B
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Arly B

I have been sailing for more than fifty years and teach sailing in retirement. I teach students about boat dynamics, sail trim, crew coordination, tacking duels, and reading the wind. The current iteration of the AC is quite simply boring. Yes they are fast, but their design and operation bears little resemblance to what 98% of the sailing community knows as sailing and sailboat racing. I would rather watch a class fleet of thistles or lightnings or a PHRF group have at it around the buoys. Give me 12 meters or something similar in 20+knots of wind. Create a separate… Read more »

David Tull
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David Tull

I agree with Mike.

Guest
Guest
Guest

As newbe to sailing, I don’t see anything the AC would have to offer have to offer me. Few if any of the crew skills apply. The boats do not behave like the ones I would sail. So if new sailors are not attracted then the audience will inevitably shrink and kill it off.

Dick Linehan
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Dick Linehan

To the American Sailing Journal I now live in Ft. Lauderdale called “The Venice of the United States.” I attended college in San Francisco and spent 30 years in the Bay Area, mostly Silicon Valley. While attending SF State, I lived in Pacific Heights in San Francisco. I had a great view from the Golden Gate Bridge to Coit Tower. I said many times, that holding the America’s Cup in San Francisco Fore Bay would be a fabulous spectator event! I saw the Louis Vuitton Cup in San Diego in 92. I had to charter a boat to go out… Read more »

curt
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curt

Some folks like it, I suppose.

Bob Carmichael
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Bob Carmichael

I’m not exactly excited about the hybrid form of racing … I’ve been on Connors boats making commercials and I long for the day of 12 meter yachts … and the wonderful teamwork, network coverage on the boat etc. I say build up the personalities and crew members and what they do and let’s celebrate SAILING not engineering!!!

SoBeCarlos
Guest
SoBeCarlos

Great article. You give all the reasons why I do not follow the AC and follow the Volvo (although based on a recent survey I received the are considering treading on very thin ice). I want to see racing that shows me how to be a better sailor not racing that gives me no better inspiration than to go out and buy a lottery ticket. At least I am already in love with sailing. What about the next generation who may be put off because it seems out of reach?