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America’s Cup crew may not be sailors, at least they are human beings

2023 September 1

OK, I promised you no more America’s Cup rants but, hey, you know you can’t trust me. The Cup is a sad, broken, shadow of an event that once enthralled sailors worldwide. How many of us sat up into the wee hours of the night to watch the racing in Australia?

The America’s Cup proclaims itself as the “oldest international sporting competition in the world,” which is an outright lie, of course. Yes, the first Cup race was in 1870, thus edging out the Kentucky Derby (1875).  But the Silver Arrow archery event in England is 200 years older (1673), and who can overlook the Kirkpinar Oil Wrestling Tournament in Turkey in 1346?  

How many kids, sailing Optimists and Sabots, dreamed of growing up to become Dennis Conner, Gary Jobson, Paul Cayard, Buddy Melges? The sailors were all larger-than-life and, speaking as a journalist, I could always count on the Tom Blackallers and Ted Turners to amuse or provoke the world with outspoken thoughts. Ted wasn’t called “The Mouth of the South” for nothing.  

Today, the skippers and crews are faceless (and mouthless), lost in their sailing gear of helmets, goggles and padded body armor. There is a scene in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” where Newman and Redford look back at the posse chasing them, and Newman says, “Who are those guys?” I feel the same way about those involved in the next America’s Cup. Who are these guys?

The boats are different too, and I find it hard to refer to these water bugs that skitter on long legs as either boats or yachts. These bear no resemblance to the sailboats that you and I own and love. They have all the charm of the cockroach I blasted with Raid last night in the garage. (It died, but these just won’t go away.) The official name is AC75, and that’s how I will refer to them.  

Where we once had brightly-colored spinnakers, now we have black scabs that are depressing to see. Sure, they can go 50 knots with the right conditions, but so what? Unlike the past, when you could actually see the crew working the coffee-grinder winches or spinning sheets off winch drums during a tack, now you see the top of helmets with the crew hidden in the innards of these beasts.   

Speaking of crew, one of the items that percolated this column, besides an overall simmering ire, was an interview with a member for one of the Cup teams. He wasn’t actually called a crew member. He was referred to as a “cyclor.” Get it?  A combination of sailor and cycler, as in bicycle?  

Without getting too techy, one of the changes in these waterbugs, oops, I mean AC75s, is that the huge black wing requires hydraulic power for its controls, and that immense hydraulic pressure is created by cyclors on bicycle-like pumps buried deep in the bilge. The America’s Cup teams have been recruiting bicycle-racing champions, who can sustain the bursts of strength in their legs to power these beasties. 

Which brings us to the one “cyclor” who shall remain nameless, but he was interviewed shortly after his first outing on an AC75. So what, you say?  

The what is that this was his first time aboard a sailboat.  

First. Time. Ever.  

He’d never been sailing and had no idea how to sail. I think you can see what bothers me here? That someone aboard an America’s Cup winner, spraying champagne all over the Auld Mug, doesn’t even know how to sail? Perhaps we should call them “operators” or “technicians.” None of these guys are going to haul on a sheet, jump a halyard or muscle down a spinnaker.  

Every sport has heroes and, yes, I’m giving my age away here. Soccer had Pele and David Beckham, baseball had Ted Williams and Willie Mays, football with Tom Brady and Joe Namath. Even kids playing tiddlywinks dream of becoming Patrick Barrie, the Tiddlywinks World Champion.  

Today, the crew are as interchangeable as chess pieces. The only good news is something I’ve noted before: America’s Cup Rule 27.1 requires that the crew “shall all be human beings.”  

Of course, even these waterbugs, um, AC75s require what used to be called “the afterguard.” During earlier America’s Cups, these were not only world-class sailors, but superb tacticians who could spot windshifts and plan devious tactics.  

Today, in the absence of tactics, the afterguard has all the power of the race manager in the pits for a Formula One team, connected by radio to his driver and impotently shouting “Go faster!” I suspect the “afterguard” on an AC75 is more likely to shout, “Pump harder!”  

Not exactly a sailing term.

And faced with nameless and interchangeable bicycle racers on skittery creepy-crawly water organisms, I think we need to add a new rule to the Protocol for the America’s Cup.  Let’s call it the Caswell Rule.  Any person aboard an AC75 during a Cup race must be able to sail. Period. We should require them to be capable of sailing a dinghy—preferably a tippy one—across the harbor and back. Only then can they be a cyclor.  

Otherwise, the America’s Cup is a colossal embarrassment.