A Singular Cup

6 Dec

The news that the America’s Cup is going back to monohulls for its 36th edition comes as no surprise to Cup insiders. I do not count myself among these, but even back in 2013, when the big AC72 cats were gearing up to transform multihull sailing forever, the whisper on the San Francisco docks was that if the Kiwis won, they’d do away with the multis.

Well, we all know how that turned out. Pride, fall, etc. Anyway, it came as no surprise to yours truly when, shortly after they took Oracle Team USA to the woodshed in Bermuda, ETNZ announced that the contest for the Auld Mug would revert to monohulls. Like many other Cup addicts, I sensed that the team that was first to take flight on foils in the lead-up to AC34, and that maintained an edge right up to the end of a regatta they had no excuse for losing, had no real passion for the boats they were sailing.

I didn’t either, until the first time I saw one of those giant AC72s lift itself out of the water in San Francisco and blast away from our pursuit boat at close to 40 knots. It was, excuse the pun, a watershed experience. It’s not every day you witness the beginnings of a new era in sailboat design and execution. The boats were big, spectacular, expensive, fragile and dangerous, which was why scarcely an eyebrow twitched among potential challengers when the America’s Cup Event Authority scaled the boats down to 50ft for AC35—except in New Zealand, where OTUSA boss Sir Russell Coutts is viewed as something of a Benedict Arnold after helping Swiss team Alinghi lift the Cup from his fellow Kiwis in 2003.

This kind of grudge match, along with all sorts of more-or-less nefarious behind-scenes maneuvering, is exactly what makes the Cup—ironically conceived as a “friendly” sporting contest between countries—stand out from other such competitions. You can bet the Kiwis were delighted to rub Coutts’s nose in the spillage of his plans for a commercially motivated two-year Cup cycle and a multihull world series. I think they liked sailing the cats in the sense that a test pilot might enjoy seeking the limits of a new jet fighter: savoring the thrill of approaching the edge while devoutly hoping you never find it.

After seeing bits flying off the AC50s on a not particularly rough day in Bermuda, it’s obvious that those cats would never hold together for long in the challenging waters of Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, or even off Newport, Rhode Island, for that matter. And then there is the simple fact that it’s a shame to see a Cup match race decided by how little a boat actually touches the water.

I can’t be alone in thinking that there is a delicious irony in Coutts’s comment in 2010 when announcing the move to multis for AC34—that the boats were “for the Facebook generation, not the Flintstones generation.” We won’t find out until the end of March exactly what form these new AC75 monos will take, but you can bet they’ll be a long way from the lead mines of the 2007 Cup matches, and, unlike wing-sailed, foiling cats, they’ll be boats that all sailors can relate to. Do I hear a yabba-dabba-doo? 

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