The America’s Cup


The 1988 event in San Diego marked the first time that consensus about the goals of the competition collapsed. A New Zealander, Michael Fay, challenged in a 130-footkeel boat and was met by an American catamaran, which predictably won by miles. Each boat was on the cutting edge of its own technology, but they were so different as to make a mockery of the old goal of “friendly competition.” The two were hardly competitive, and the atmosphere, which included legal action to the highest level of New York’s courts, was anything but friendly. But driven by the new commercial interests and markets, the America’s Cup quickly recovered its bearings. Yacht designers developed a new class of fast, lively 75-footers. They excited the growing worldwide television audience that, though modest in the United States, was vast in New Zealand, Australia, and Europe. The sailing got as close as anybody could wish, while the hulls and sails became billboards for sponsors’ logos. The stakes rose exponentially. With boats now built like jet airplanes, with carbonfiber hulls and masts and ever more costly sails, the price of an America’s Cup campaign increased to as much as $150 million.

The eventual challenger at San Diego in 1992 was the Italian Raul Gardini’s Il Moro de Venencia. Beating her 4-1 was America 3, the product of her owner Bill Koch’s personal wealth and unprecedented research program, and skippered by him and the famous Wisconsin sailor Buddy Melges. The 1990s brought a noticeable decline in nationalism, at least among the sailors and technical experts. One of Koch’s naval architects in 1992, the American Doug Peterson, went on to help produce the New Zealand challenger in 1995 and the Italian challenger in 2000. A talented young American, Paul Cayard, was Il Moro’s skipper in 1992 and the main helmsman in Conner’s new Stars & Stripes in 1995.


Fresh interest took hold in 1995, when Bill Koch sponsored Mighty Mary, a boat with an all-female crew. Although he eventually added a man to the team, Mighty Mary attracted a large number of women to a sport that had long been male-dominated if not macho. On the water in 1995 the news was the New Zealand boat. If the 1983 match had indicated that American leadership in the technological race was fragile, the 1995 match showed that it was shattered, thanks to a steady migration of talented people across national borders. Black Magic —organized by Sir Peter Blake, the world’s best-known and most successful ocean sailor, and with the young Olympic champion Russell Courts at the helm—showed no weakness. She swept the challenger eliminations and finished the season by demolishing Conner. The sixth superboat, like the first in 1851, represented an out-of-the-way country challenging and conquering the world’s greatest maritime power.

The Kiwis delayed the next match until 2000 so they could get their site for the races in order. Thirteen yacht clubs from eight countries challenged, including five U.S. clubs (two from the San Francisco area alone), and eleven made it to the starting line for the first set of elimination races last October. Those challenging boats carried a total of twelve New Zealanders to supply local knowledge to helmsmen from far away. The New York Yacht Club’s forty-million-dollar challenge included partnership arrangements with other yacht clubs.

The people who launched the cup back in 1851 are not there; the British have not challenged since 1987. But next year the Royal Yacht Squadron is graciously holding a jubilee celebrating the 150th anniversary of its loss of the bottomless ewer that in the days of Prince Albert was called the Royal Yacht Squadron £100 Cup—and that has since come to represent so much more.