Throughout its history, the lure of the America’s Cup has seduced tycoons, pioneers and moguls. As the 35th America’s Cup Match presented by Louis Vuitton unfurls this month in Bermuda, THE RAKE takes a look at the dramas on land and sea that make the world’s longest running sporting event such a compelling spectacle. By Adam Hay-Nicholls.
The high sea has always attracted swashbuckling adventurers. Today, the America’s Cup fields a fleet of state-of-the-art sprinters; water-born Formula One cars, with crews every bit as gym-toned and professional. But what has always held true since the Cup was founded, in 1851, is the larger-than-life characters taking time off from their empire-building to focus on nautical passions.
Prior to a few years ago, before hydrofoils, the boats were huge and handsome, inspiring the curves of Rolls-Royces and Mercedes-Benz. This is particularly true of the J-Class yachts of that most stylish of decades, the 1930s. Sadly the war effort demanded all but three of those legendary vessels be scrapped.
The crews comprised salty-yet-steely gentlemen, rather than athletes. It was less like F1, more like the Le Mans 24 Hours or perhaps its more dangerous cousin the Dakar Rally, with treacherous waves instead of desert dunes.
Picture, if you will, the Hollywood movie they never made; you’d have Steve McQueen bedecked in a preppy blue blazer and white chinos, stuffing his pipe full of Navy Cut as he shields himself from the obstinate winds. It might have looked seductively like a Ralph Lauren mood board, but there was no sponsorship and, of course, no TV. It was a fight purely for yacht club honour, and the only way to make a small fortune was to start with a big one.
Known affectionately as ‘the Auld Mug’, the America’s Cup is the world’s oldest international sporting trophy – older than the modern Olympic Games – and, due to something called the Deed of Gift, the trophy is in perpetual competition between nations. All it takes is a team to challenge the cup holder and then the anchors come up.
First staged by the Royal Yacht Squadron, Britain’s most envied yacht club, during the World’s Fair the inaugural race took place around the Isle of Wight, in the English Channel, under the watchful eye of Queen Victoria. When the Royal Yacht was passed by a radical-looking schooner for the lead, the monarch asked one of her attendants who was in second. “Your Majesty,” came the reply, “there is no second”. It was an upstart syndicate of businessmen from the New York Yacht Club who sailed away with the silverware and a £100 cash prize. It was the end of an era and the start of a new one; the New World triumphing over the Old, and Great Britain – for centuries the undisputed maritime superpower – unseated by the USA.
Their boat was called ‘America’, and the name stuck. Its commodore was inventor of steam engines John Cox Stevens. A notorious gambler, he had placed a wager on ‘America’ beating the British and did so, according to fellow syndicate member George L. Schuyler, “with his usual promptness, and regardless of the pockets of his associates”. Two weeks after the bout, ‘America’ was sold to Ireland’s Lord John de Blaquiere for $25,000, giving a profit of $1,750 which was split between the schooner’s six owners.
New York didn’t have to relinquish the sterling silver ewer for 132 years, they were that good. That’s the longest running streak in the history of competition.
A test of seamanship, engineering, fundraising and management in equal measure, it has attracted the world’s top sailors, designers and some of its most famous entrepreneurs, attracted by the prestige as much as the challenge.
Competing tycoons have included two Vanderbilts, William and Harold; the legendary banker J Pierpoint Morgan; tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton; aviation pioneer Sir Thomas Sopwith, father of the First World War fighter the Sopwith Camel; Australian media mogul and grandfather of Mariah Carey’s ex, Sir Frank Packer; convicted fraudster and one-time owner of Van Gogh’s Irises, Sir Alan Bond; CNN founder Ted Turner; racehorse breeder the Aga Khan; pharma and biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli; energy bazillionaire Bill Koch; and the seventh-richest man in the world ($56 billion, according to Forbes), Larry Ellison, whose Oracle Team USA is defending their Cup this Summer, on behalf of the Golden Gate Yacht Club of San Francisco.
The only thing these men love more than a battle across the waves is a battle in court, and the America’s Cup has been decided by lawyers more than once. The first competitor to cry foul was wealthy English politician James Lloyd Ashbury, who was beaten by the NYYC twice in two years, in 1870 and ’71, claimed he’d won to no avail and limped back to Blighty in a fit of frenzied bitterness. He would later take his own life.
The next Briton to take up the challenge was the more affable Lipton (twin vices: tea and boats), who tried to take the Cup five times between 1899 and 1930, unsuccessfully. Seen as a loveable loser, his determination against the odds turned him into a folk hero and did his Lipton tea brand no harm at all at the American breakfast table. More than his sense of humour and fair play, Lipton’s biggest contribution to sailing was the introduction of sports sponsorship.
Until 1970, it was only ever two teams – the defender and the challenger. Then it was opened up to multiple nations, and since 1983 Louis Vuitton has organised the challenger selection series, the Louis Vuitton Cup, to identify the strongest pretender to the throne and ensure they’re sufficiently battle-tested to take on the America’s Cup defender. That was the year that, finally, the NYYC were beaten – by Australia’s Royal Perth Yacht Club. Sir Alan Bond, the money man from Down Under who later mounted debts of $1.4 billion, suggested, with tongue firmly in cheek, that it should be renamed the ‘Australia’s Cup’.
Australia II, the yacht that snatched the title, moved the technology of sailing forward in the same way Concorde shifted aviation’s goal posts. The winged keel was so radical that the crew draped large ‘modesty skirts’ from the deck to the ground to keep their secrets under wraps. There was nothing modest about their mascot, though; a boxing kangaroo.
The San Diego Yacht Club brought it back to America from Fremantle in 1987 through total domination, and with the world’s media taking a big interest in the international rivalry and its deep pockets of cash, the US crew were treated to a Fifth Avenue ticker tape parade and an invitation to the White House. New Zealand ploughed through the rule book, found a loophole in the century-old Deed of Gift and demanded an immediate challenge for 1988 before Ronald Reagan had finished shaking the skipper’s hand. That race ended up in court too, with the win falling to the Americans once again, but the biggest development was the introduction of a more modern boat built to a design rule.
The sport was quickly becoming more focused and professional, and much of credit for this is laid at Dennis Conner, aka ‘Mr America’s Cup’. The son of a fisherman, he’s won it four times and has graced the cover of Time magazine like Harold Vanderbilt before him.
Since then, the competition has heated to boiling point. The Kiwis finally triumphed, in the ocean rather than chambers, in 1995 and 2000, skippered by Sir Peter Blake. His lucky red socks, a gift from his wife, became somewhat iconic though that good fortune ended in 2001 when he was shot dead by pirates.
Switzerland triumphed in 2003 and 2007, the first victory for Europe, albeit with a largely Kiwi crew thanks to the abolition of nationality rules. Now teams could vie for the best people regardless of passport. This helped Oracle Team USA win its second Cup on the bounce at home in San Francisco in 2013 with Britain’s Sir Ben Ainslie as tactician, beating Team New Zealand in the closest result in the history of the competition.
It’s not only the sailors who bear the scars of ruthless one-upmanship. The ewer itself has been a casualty of jealousy and rage. In 1996, a Maori student activist burst into the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s club room and set to work on the priceless America’s Cup with a sledgehammer. The damage was severe, but Garrards – silversmiths to Queen Elizabeth II – painstakingly restored the cup they’d made in 1848 to its original condition, free of charge. It was flown to London and back under escort and in its own First Class seat.
This summer marks the 35th America’s Cup, held a long way from the tungsten grey waters off England’s south coast whence it began and across the Tiffany-blue ocean that surrounds Bermuda.
Ainslie has established his own team – Ben Ainslie Racing – representing the Royal Yacht Squadron that first established this international sailing trophy. He hopes to ‘bring the cup back’, a feat the RYS has never managed. Should he succeed, he will join the storied membership of the world’s most driven seadogs.