The America’s Cup is arguably the most difficult trophy in sport to win.
In more than 150 years since a yacht named America, representing the New York Yacht Club, beat the best the British could offer and win the Royal Yacht Squadron’s 100 Guinea Cup, only three nations other than the United States Australia, New Zealand and, ironically, Switzerland have won what is believed to be the oldest trophy in international sport. To put this in some perspective, consider that there had been nine contests for the America’s Cup before the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896.
The America’s Cup is a challenge-based competition where the previous winning yacht club makes the rules and hosts the event, often making it difficult for challenging clubs to win the cup in unfamiliar waters. Early in the history of the cup, these obstacles were completely insurmountable and the defender was never threatened. In fact, despite a couple of close calls, it would take 132 years for a foreign challenger to beat the American defender and win the cup.
This year’s competition will be very different than in previous years and what most people think of as the America’s Cup the Louis Vuitton Cup and the final regatta itself is much shorter than usual. While these two events used to be spread across five months in the past four America’s Cup cycles, they will be concentrated over just three months in 2007, a short, sharp, intense period of racing.
Indeed, the challenging syndicates have already been involved in an ambitious four-year schedule of regattas commencing in 2004, each one a distinct Act in the overall drama of the 32nd America’s Cup.
The opening Acts were a mixture of fleet and match races in a variety of venues, and open to all. They were developed to make America’s Cup racing a more regular feature on the sailing calendar, and allowed teams to measure themselves alongside their fellow competitors at each event and keep race fans firmly focused on the cup defense in 2007. Each successive Act took on increasing importance as the America’s Cup Match drew nearer, and each was used as a ranking tool for the early rounds of the Louis Vuitton Cup.
Now that the Louis Vuitton Cup is nearing completion, it should be a little easier to see who is in pole position to challenge current holders Alinghi for the right to defend the cup.
Most commentators are picking Kiwi syndicate Emirates Team New Zealand, US-backed BMW Oracle Racing and Italian syndicate Luna Rossa to lead the field of 11 teams after the round-robin competition, with the last semi-final spot coming down to whether American Paul Cayard’s considerable America’s Cup experience can help Spain’s Desafio Espanol hold off Sweden’s Victory Challenge.
Led by Grant Dalton, who has raced around the world seven times, the New Zealand team has adopted a completely different approach to this regatta to the tack they tried in 2003, when they lost the trophy 5-0 to the Swiss on the back of embarrassing technical problems. Ably skippered by Dean Baker, Team New Zealand has not altered the boat’s hull since winning Act 13 coming into the regatta in 2007 Valencia and the crew has been able to ignore the hardware and work on refinements and ways to minimize the risk of breakdown.
The Americans, skippered by experienced Kiwi campaigner Chris Dickson, launched a radically different boat in USA98 to the one they raced in the preliminary Acts. USA97 had showed some intriguing features maneuverability and quick acceleration but it also revealed a couple of weaknesses, including being tricky to sail.
The Americans’ new boat is similar to Team New Zealand’s in that it has a lot of volume in the bow but whether the crew and on-shore staff have sufficient time to become familiar with their new boat and its appendages remains to be seen. With the funding and resources the Americans have at their disposal, however, they will always be a threat.
In many ways Luna Rossa is the dark horse of the Louis Vuitton challenger series and if the Italians get the hardware right on their boat, they could easily trump more fancied opponents such as Team New Zealand and BMW Oracle Racing. Helmsman James Spithill was one of the best starters in the preliminary Acts in the build-up to Valencia but the Italians will have to catch up to other teams speed-wise or else they will find themselves being passed by the first mark.
That brings us to the current holders of the America’s Cup, Alinghi. For two months now, Alinghi, has been watching the challengers develop and get stronger through the Louis Vuitton Cup. From June 23, it is time for the Swiss syndicate to show whether it has what it takes to hold on to the trophy.
The 32nd America’s Cup Match is a first-to-five (best-of-nine) series that will test the abilities of the two teams over a range of conditions. Consistency is the key here and the first day or two of racing is a critical indication of which team has the speed to succeed and capture the cup.
The America’s Cup Match might be over after five races, ending in a 5-0 white-wash, or as in 1983, it may come down to a final race for glory. By July 7, we will already know the answer…
Story by James Sycamore
From J SELECT Magazine, June 2007