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The America’s Cup has moved so far from the glory days it might as well be on the moon

2022 November 1

Disclosure: I love sports cars. I’ve loved them since I didn’t have a driver’s license and, since then, I’ve owned them, restored them, raced them and often sworn at them. It’s exactly like my relationship with boats.

Although I’m fascinated by cars of all ilk, I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the lunar moon rover. Yes, it’s a vehicle and it has four wheels, but it holds no thrall at all. I’ll probably never see one, let alone drive it or dream about it.

It’s the same way I feel about the America’s Cup these days. The waterbug-like craft that skitter around on foils with no spinnakers, no tacking duels, just sheer speed are the moon rovers of sailing. 

I see no “trickle-down” from the America’s Cup. Sailors used to benefit from advances in everything from sail materials to better turning blocks, but I don’t see our marinas suddenly filling with foiled yachts. I’m long past wearing a skin-tight wetsuit, and I’d have to be dipped into liquid neoprene to get into one, though kids sailing Optimists have embraced it.

This musing was triggered because of the photo of the Alinghi Red Bull Racing. (How’s that for a yacht name? No more Intrepids or Columbias or Heritages, it has all the appeal of calling it Joe’s Plumbing Supply.) The Swiss America’s Cup challenger was practicing in Barcelona and on its first—first—day of sailing, when it had a major problem.

The boat fell over.

We might have said that it capsized if it was a real boat, but it was more like the SS Alinghi Red Bull Racing had just fainted. As they were towing in after testing, a sudden squall blew though. One of the crewmembers said the boat was difficult to control and it just tipped over. Chase boats quickly picked up the sailors that had been dumped in the water, but the image of this America’s Cup yacht lying helplessly on its side with its foils in the air like a dying cockroach made me realize how far astray the Cup has gone. 

I was reminded of sailing on Galveston Bay in a Soling championship when the chase-boat drivers began racing around shouting “Take your sails down!” Sure enough, in a few minutes, we were engulfed by buckets of wind and drenching rain. But we all survived to race later that day, and the worst thing that happened was our sandwiches got wet. Yet a Cup boat crewed by arguably the best sailors in the world simply falls over. What’s wrong with this picture?

The whole thing is embarrassing and, yes, all of you sailors enjoying foils on small boats are well and good. Having campaigned a Flying Dutchman, I know that not everyone wants to strap on a harness and hang over the side. The idea of getting She Who Must Be Obeyed out on the wire is as unlikely as me tooling around in a lunar rover. 

But there’s more wrong with the current Cup. Since the very first race, challengers raced on the winner’s waters. The location of the baseball World Series is determined by whichever league wins the All-Star Game. Can you imagine Major League Baseball suddenly deciding to hold the World Series in Dubai? 

The present holder of the America’s Cup, New Zealand, said it couldn’t afford to host so it opened up bidding to other countries to host. With proposals from Ireland to the Middle East, the Kiwis passed the hosting torch to Barcelona, Spain, giving up 170 years of history. When the Aussies won the Cup, it went to Perth. When Dennis won it back, it went to San Diego. The exceptions were when the Swiss (with no salt water) went to Spain, and Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing went to Bermuda in hopes of television coverage.

And so the once-proud America’s Cup is being hosted in Spain in weird foiling boats so temperamental they fall over while being towed off the race course. 

There is one hope for the America’s Cup. In studying the new Cup rules I found Rule 27.1 that requires that the crew “shall all be human beings.”

Perhaps sanity will reign again.