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How did that make you feel? If you've followed America's Cup sailing in the past, you probably got a bit emotional. It's a perfectly natural response called Nationalism. We're proud to be who we are. And that is what's wrong with today's America's Cup regattas. The sense of nationalism is gone.
The America’s Cup has always been a game for the rich and powerful. Indeed, in the age of wooden yachts, only millionaires and royalty could afford such an expensive hobby. The average person couldn’t afford to take part. For most of its 132 year residence in the trophy case at The New York Yacht Club, most Americans had no idea such a Cup existed.
In the late 1950’s, television and radio as well as the introduction of fiberglass as a boatbuilding material, led to a boom in boat construction and greatly expanded the accessibility of the sport. Concurrent with the arrival of the first inexpensive fiberglass yachts, a community of enthusiastic new sailors appeared. Cup matches began to attract a wider audience. In the US, nationalist fervor peaked in 1987, when Dennis Conner – who in 1983 became the first man to lose the cup – made his way down under and by sheer force of will won it back. All over America, sailors braved the wee hours of the morning to watch Conner and his team sail to victory. It was a truly American effort. The boat, sailors, sails and most of the equipment were American, as rules then required.
Things changed in 1988 when Conner, forced to abandon Stars and Stripes which had just finished repatriating the cup, sailed out to the starting line in a 60 foot catamaran to meet Kiwi Michael Fay’s 120 foot ultra-light-displacement monohull New Zealand. The match was a disaster for the Cup’s reputation. Months and months of acrimonious litigation followed by a lopsided match on the water killed off a great deal of interest among sailors.
It didn't seem like things couldn’t get worse, but they did. The arrival of big name sponsors and the resulting crossing of national boundaries by competitors upended 150 years of tradition. Where in the beginning the owners were mere multi-millionaires, today the top sailors are the millionaires and any owner with less than a billion or two can forget winning the Cup. Sailors aren't stupid, they follow the money. If that means a Kiwi steers a Swiss boat, hey, we all have families to feed. Today’s America’s Cup competitions no longer have a national flavor and that’s the element that's missing. The Cup has become a playground for mega-corporations which do not recognize national borders.
I say it’s time to bring back national teams. BMW Oracle Racing might be based in San Francisco and owned by an
The author and crew calling the pin end of the start line
American, but it isn’t an American team. Helmsman Russell Coutts is from New Zealand. The crew are from everywhere but the US. No wonder yesterday's announcement was met with virtual silence. No one cares. BMW Oracle isn't us.
Give me a truly American team, and I’ll pay attention again. Require the skipper and 90% of all team members to be US citizens. Make sure the boat and its equipment is conceived, designed, and built in the US. Require all sails to be designed and built by lofts that do not share technology. And what’s with this catamaran crap? Less than one half of one percent of all sailboats are catamarans. They might be straight line fast, but the rest of the time they’re unwieldy space hogs that tack slower than a tractor trailer rig doing a u-turn. Make the boat a hundred feet long if you want, but get back to monohull competitions.