The America’s Cup

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By 1980 the America’s Cup was the sailing equivalent of the arms race. Defenders and challengers alike ran full-time multi-year testing programs and demanded a new level of commitment from crews. “The days when a New York stockbroker will leave his business for a month or two and race in the America’s Cup are over,” declared Nat Herreshoff’s grandson Halsey, who often sailed in cup boats. The last amateur skipper of an America’s Cup winner was Ted Turner, who took a few months off from his broadcast company in 1977 to sail (and win in) Courageous . After that a new type of professional sailor took over. The forerunner was Dennis Conner. The most successful racing sailor of his generation, he will have sailed in all eight cup seasons between 1974 and 2000, and has won four times. He came up through the ranks of yacht-club organizations but eventually became independent, forging his own alliances with corporate sponsors and media companies to create his own racing entity, Team Dennis Conner.

 

In the 1970s Conner and other Americans cut back on basic research on boat design; after the problems with small models in 1970 and again in 1974, they used large models but fewer of them. Conner, apparently deciding that naval architecture had gone as far as it could go, concentrated months at a time on developing superb crews and fast sails. But the challengers stayed focused on design innovations. In 1980 the British developed a curved mast that permitted a larger mainsail. The idea was copied by the Australians for the match against the defending Freedom. Australia had a speed advantage that won it a race, but Conner used unorthodox tactics (as skippers of slower boats had done before) and prevailed, 4-1.

The challengers could see the prize on the near horizon. Alan Bond, in three increasingly effective matches, had learned the lessons of tight organization and advanced technology. Like Thomas Lipton, he was a master of public relations, but where as Lipton’s public presence had been soothingly benign, his was aggressively sharp-edged, aimed at keeping the New York Yacht Club on the defensive. Behind this screen Bond in the early 1980s put together a multimillion-dollar campaign whose lead designer, Ben Lexcen, conducted research on keels at a model towing tank in the Netherlands. The result was the 1983 superboat Australia II, which carried a novel, highly efficient keel with winglets under a small, light hull designed to perform in the gentle winds that had come to prevail off Newport. Olin Stephens, now retired, congratulated Lexcen on the success of his work, but the New York Yacht Club challenged the keel on several fronts. When Bond presented an angry public counterattack, the club briefly considered canceling the match altogether.

Australia II, raced by John Bertrand, swept the challenger eliminations but had a much tighter series against Conner’s Liberty. Sailing brilliantly, Conner overcame the speed difference to gain a 3-1 lead, but damage to his mast and some chancy tactics cost him two races. Liberty led the rubber race until halfway down the fifth of the six legs. On a run square before a dying breeze—the conditions that the challenger was designed to excel in— Australia II gained rapidly. Conner jibed away to look for wind, but Bertrand swept by to win the race and the cup. The world’s longest winning streak ended on its twenty-fifth challenge, and the cup went to Perth, Australia.

 

To win it back, the Americans increased their budgets, sinking money into computer and model research on the new keels and well-shaped but fragile sails made of Kevlar and other exotic fabrics. Conner, challenging from the San Diego Yacht Club, built a new boat tailored to the heavy conditions that he was sure, after much research, would prevail off Perth. He was right, and his Stars & Stripes won the eliminations over twelve boats from six countries, including New Zealand for the first time, and in 1987 swept the Australian defender Kookaburra III. This was the first cup match under heavy corporate sponsorship, with boats allowed to display advertising except during races.

What drew the sponsors was broadening television coverage of the races. Introduced in 1983, it expanded after ESPN began carrying live coverage in 1987. The media attention stimulated controversy and loud gamesmanship at which Conner, who had developed some of the pit-bull qualities that Bond had exploited in Newport, was especially skilled. (Bond’s boat lost the defender eliminations that year. He later ran into serious legal problems in Australia and did not return to cup competition.)