The America’s Cup

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That moment almost did not come about. In 1895, after the Earl of Dunraven lost his second match, he nearly ended cup racing altogether when he accused the Americans of cheating. Hearings revealed Dunraven’s case to be circumstantial at best, but the nasty controversy and accompanying outsized nationalistic feelings appeared to doom the contest. “For the sake of peace and quietness such events as races for the America’s Cup are rather to be deprecated than otherwise,” the Times of London editorialized.

The fact is that “peace and quietness” have rarely surrounded the America’s Cup over its long history. The event needs public passion. The best people involved with it have always succeeded in stirring things up without an excess of rancor, and the very best of the best was Sir Thomas Lipton.

Lipton broke the post-Dunraven funk when he challenged from Northern Ireland in 1899. He returned four more times over the next thirty-one years. His sole failing was that he never won the cup. Everybody loved him, and almost everybody wanted him to win; because of this, the America’s Cup thrived. So did Lipton’s international tea and grocery concern, leading a British journalist to call Lipton’s challenges “virtually the finest advertising stunts the world has ever known.”

In his third match, in 1903, Lipton came up against the second of six cup superboats (America had been the first). This nautical version of Secretariat and Joe DiMaggio’s Yankees was Herreshoff’s Reliance. Stretching half the length of a football field from the tip of her bowsprit to the end of her boom, she carried more than a third of an acre of sail and had a hull so delicate that a rough sea could dent the bow. Under way, her huge sails teetering over her low hull, she looked like an immense tightrope walker. After the slaughter, people tried to console Lipton with assurances that at least his Shamrock was the prettier boat. “Give me the homeliest boat that was ever designed, if she is like Reliance,” he snapped back. Lipton got his ugly boat for the next match in 1920. Shamrock IV won two races but found no way to win the necessary third.

Lipton had one challenge left in him for what he called “the Auld Mug,” but that, too, ended badly. The world’s profound affection for the old merchant-sportsman reached even to his hard-boiled final opponent, Harold S. Vanderbilt, owner-skipper of the defender, Enterprise, in 1930. Near the end of their last race, with Shamrock V well astern, Vanderbilt handed the helm to a shipmate and went below. “Our hour of triumph, our hour of victory, is all but at hand,” Vanderbilt later wrote in the log, “but it is so tempered with sadness that it is almost hollow.”

Harold Vanderbilt competed in three matches in the 120-foot-plus J-Class yachts in the 1930s and won them all. Wealthy enough to pay his way and more, he was even more valuable as a brilliant organizer of men and equipment. He also was an innovator who constantly pushed his technical advisers in new directions, including using experimental materials that would later influence all sailboats (he bought the first synthetic sails for the races).

For the 1937 contest he undertook a program of testing design ideas with small models towed in a tank at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. His design team, the veteran Starling Burgess and the twenty-nine-year-old Olin Stephens, came up with the third of the cup’s superboats, Ranger, the first of Stephens’s six cup defenders. She compiled a 32-2 record with an average winning margin of a mile and easily won the match. Five years later she and most of the others were broken up, the steel in their hulls and the lead in their keels gone to war.

 
By 1980 the America’s Cup was the sailing equivalent of the arms race, with full-time, multi-year testing programs.

“It is a game for the wealthy, so let them choose the type and size of craft,” Nathanael Herreshoff once said of the America’s Cup and its vessels. Because of high taxes and inflation, wealth meant something different after World War II. Cup competition remained dormant until the Deed of Gift was altered by the New York courts to permit more economical boats of the 12-Meter Class (the name referred to their measurement under a handicap rule), with crews of eleven amateurs instead of the twenty-five professionals that had been standard. The first of the new-style matches was held in 1958, when the American Columbia easily beat the awkward British Sceptre.