The America’s Cup competition is being held again this year and I look forward to it with mixed emotions. When I was living in New Jersey I attended every race from 1974 to 1983, when Dennis Connor lost the cup to the Australians. For each challenge, I would arrange to sail a boat from my brother’s marina up to Newport for the owner. This would not only give me a place to stay while the racing was going on but also provide a free ride out on the water to be up close and personal with the action. As you can imagine during the Cup races rooms in Newport and spectator boats are incredibly expensive.
In 1983 I sailed a C&C 36 with the owner, a doctor up the 200 odd miles to the shores of Rhode Island. We had no sooner arrived and safely moored his boat than he got a phone call telling him that one of his patients had suffered a heart attack and he was needed back home! Sadly, it took the fellow two weeks to die! The doctor never made it back up to the races, so I had the boat to myself for the entire America’s Cup series. I arranged for my girlfriend to meet me there and since I did not want to take the doctor’s boat out into the mad melee of the spectator fleet without him on board, I found a job on a spectator boat for my girlfriend and myself.
This boat was a modern replica of a 1920s Great Lakes yacht, 85 feet long and 12 feet wide so she could fit through the Erie Canal. She was a real beauty, all varnished mahogany and polished brass. Our job was to handle dock lines and sell beer, then at the end of the day hose the salt and beer off the deck. For this we got a free ride to see all the races!
There was a great bakery near the dock that made the best croissants in the world. At the end of the day, they would wrap all the unsold croissants in aluminum foil and freeze them to sell at half price the next day. Each morning we would stop at the bakery on the way to our sightseeing boat and pick up a couple of these beauties as well as a container of orange juice (I had brought a bottle of champagne from our boat). We would put the frozen pastries on top of the engine manifold to heat while we handled dock lines and got the boat underway. Once everything was squared away, and our boat joined the crowd as the Twelve Meter yachts were being towed out of the harbor to the racecourse, we would be seated on the cabin top enjoying the scenery, eating warm croissants and drinking mimosas on a budget!
The trip out to the race course was always an experience. The tow boats for each team had sound systems with enormous speakers blasting music for miles across the water. The Aussies would be playing “Man from the Land Down Under” by Men at Work and the Americans, the theme from “Star Wars” (Remember, this was 1983). On the trip out of the harbor we went past all the mansions lining the shore, their rolling green lawns crowded with onlookers, fancy dresses and big hats for the ladies and white trousers and yachting blazers for the gentlemen.
For me it was the experience of a lifetime … until the end of the final race, when we had the lead, the Australians tacked, and Connor didn’t tack to cover! I could not believe it! One of the first things we teach our little kids racing their Optis at Lake Lanier Sailing Club is when you are ahead, ALWAYS, ALWAYS stay between your opponent and the next mark!
I guess Dennis was sleeping when they taught that class. The result has haunted me ever since. America lost the America’s Cup, ending the longest winning streak in international sports history.
Fast forward to the present: the era of gentlemen yachtsmen and amateur sailors has passed, but there is still intense competition for the Cup. The race has been commercialized to a point that it resembles NASCAR! Now, I realize that they had to do something to increase public interest and attract sponsors in order to keep the sport going. With that comes the advantage of being able to sit in my living room in front of the TV with a beer in my hand watching the boats go around the course at speeds approaching 50 knots! The incredible graphics tell you wind and current speed and direction, boat speed and which boat is ahead and by how much.
However, I really miss the days when they were competing in the Twelve Meter yachts and the boats were similar enough to the ones we sail here on Lake Lanier that any sailor could identify with all the competitors out on the course.
Racing begins March 6th with two races scheduled per day and the first boat to take seven races wins the Cup.
You know where I’ll be.