One would safely expect that all (sporting) eyes in New Zealand are currently on the Lions tour after the All Blacks continued their Eden Park winning streak with a comfortable victory in Saturday’s first test. Whilst rugby is unquestionably New Zealand’s national sport, perhaps a close second in the nation’s heart is, surprisingly, America’s Cup racing.
Late last night, Emirates Team New Zealand captured the final race win required to secure the return of the ‘Auld Mug’, often cited to be the oldest international sporting trophy, to the land of the long white cloud.
The history of the America’s cup goes back some 166 years. In 1851 Commodore Jon Cox Stevens, a member of the fledgling New York Yacht Club (“NYYC”), together with a syndicate of friends, commissioned a yacht to be built so that he could travel to England in order to compete in established yachting regattas for which the winners could earn prize money. The yacht, a 101 foot schooner, was called America and it duly won the Royal Yacht Squadron club’s prestigious annual regatta race around the Isle of Wight.
The cup they won was renamed the America’s Cup (after the winning yacht) and duly donated by Stevens to the NYYC specifying that it be held in trust as a perpetual challenge trophy to promote friendly competition among nations.
No further races were held until 1870 when the Royal Thames Yacht Club challenged and lost out to the NYYC in New York. The NYYC held off a similar British challenge the following year. Indeed the NYYC were successful in defeating all challengers between 1870 and 1983 when they finally succumbed (3-4) to the challenge of the Royal Perth Yacht Club from Australia, peaking interest in the Southern Hemisphere to this unique event.
Nowadays the America’s Cup is managed by two separate and independent organizations: (1) America’s Cup Race Management, which oversees the sporting and competitive rules largely governed by the original deed of trust; and (2) the America’s Cup Event Authority, which is the commercial rights holder.
The rules are in fact heavily skewed in favour of the “Defender” of the Cup who is always guaranteed a place in the final match and whose choice of boat determines what the “Challengers” must also use. The team the Defender faces in the final match is in turn decided over a series of match races known as the America’s Cup World Series.
The current boat of choice now raced, the America’s Cup Class (“ACC”) 45, is widely considered an engineering masterpieces capable of previously unheard of speeds on the water in excess of 60mph with some developed by Formula One aerodynamic experts. Such is the technology utilised that the boats are said to cost upwards of £10 million each.
Indeed some have argued that the technology deployed by Emirates Team New Zealand, which operated its foils by using small bicycles to move the hydraulically operated foils rather than the more commonly used crank handles, may have been a key factor in its success against the Golden Gate Yacht Club’s Oracle Team USA.
Also challenging for a place in the finals, for the first time in 14 years, was a team from Great Britain, Land Rover BAR, representing the original Royal Yacht Squadron and led by Sir Ben Ainslie who many hold responsible for one of sport’s greatest comebacks when he was drafted in as chief tactician and successfully masterminded a comeback from 1-8 down to win the America’s Cup 9-8 in the winner takes all final race for Oracle Team USA in the 2013 edition of the competition.
However unlike the nail-biting 2013 event the 2017 finals have not produced the thrilling climax event organisers would have hoped for. Indeed the money involved and the level of corporate sponsorship means the America’s Cup is in danger of becoming inaccessible to 99% of the population who believe it simply to be a competition between billionaires.
Low wind conditions and a lack of overtaking (a common criticism of the similarly technical Formula One) also meant the spectacle of racing was unsatisfying. When the wind in Bermuda did pick up it made for much more exciting racing and unpredictability.
On the plus side the AC45 boats are truly magnificent to watch in full flight and those in charge of broadcasting the racing, largely aided by Larry Ellison’s money and innovation, have seen cutting edge footage which has enabled fans and viewers to truly appreciate the juxtaposition of the chess like strategy and brute strength and bravery needed to win a race.
Whilst there is much to improve upon there is hope. Let’s hope the America’s Cup remains a fixture on the sporting calendar for the next 150 years.