Amer­ica’s Cup Game Chang­ers

How two aris­to­crats, a boat­builder, a draper and a tech ty­coon made a last­ing im­pact on the pin­na­cle of sail­ing.

Yachts International - - Contents - BY JOHN ROUS­MAN­IERE

How two aris­to­crats, a boat­builder, a draper and a tech ty­coon made a last­ing im­pact on the pin­na­cle of sail­ing.

BBe­cause it is so old, un­usual, dra­matic and con­tro­ver­sial, the story of the Amer­ica’s Cup is of­ten re­garded as some­thing out of an ex­otic Greek myth, with gods ar­bi­trar­ily reach­ing down from the clouds to choose a win­ner and loser. Yet this in­ter­na­tional yacht com­pe­ti­tion dat­ing back to 1851 is gov­erned not by Nep­tune or Zeus, but in­stead by its com­peti­tors and their equip­ment.

From the days when the Amer­ica’s Cup Deed of Gift was first an­nounced in 1857 spec­i­fy­ing that the races be or­ga­nized with chal­lenges from yacht clubs, not in­di­vid­u­als, and re­quir­ing that dis­agree­ments be set­tled through mu­tual con­sent (mean­ing pri­vate ne­go­ti­a­tions with or with­out a me­di­a­tor), the rac­ing has be­come ever more com­pli­cated by the sailors’ ever greater am­bi­tions. There have been a few times of tran­si­tion in which sailors and their back­ers have al­tered the fun­da­men­tals of the game, a sort of ac­tiv­ity that at­tracts sin­gu­lar and some­times very dif­fi­cult fig­ures.

Here are five of them—each, I be­lieve, em­body­ing a com­ment that writer Bruce Knecht made about one of them, Larry Ellison: “To Ellison, life was an ex­per­i­ment, or a con­test, with a sin­gu­lar pur­pose: de­ter­min­ing just how good you can be.”

The earl of Dun­raven (1841-1926)

De­scribed as “above all, a great Vic­to­rian char­ac­ter,” Wind­ham Thomas Wyn­d­ham-Quin, Fourth Earl of Dun­raven, was a fiercely proud and in­de­pen­dent Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal fig­ure, an en­light­ened so­cial re­former and a keen and com­mand­ing mem­ber of the Royal Yacht Squadron who de­signed small boats. At a time when the type of yacht com­pet­ing for the Amer­ica’s Cup was de­ter­mined by the chal­lenger, he in­tro­duced 120-foot (36.5-me­ter) rac­ing ma­chines de­signed by Bri­tain’s lead­ing naval ar­chi­tect, G.L. Watson. The Amer­i­cans re­sponded with Nathanael G. Her­reshoff’s first Amer­ica’s Cup boats. In 1893, sail­ing off New York, Dun­raven’s valkyrie II lost the first con­test and then, in one of the most ex­cit­ing events in the sport’s his­tory, led through­out the windy sec­ond race be­fore fi­nally be­ing over­taken near the fin­ish by vig­i­lant.

When an over­con­fi­dent Dun­raven chal­lenged again in 1895, his valkyrie III lost race one to De­fender, and then won race two but was dis­qual­i­fied for a start­ing line col­li­sion. Furious and dis­ap­pointed, Dun­raven with­drew. Later, in Eng­land, while giv­ing a speech he care­lessly ac­cused the Amer­i­cans of cheat­ing by al­ter­ing their boat with­out per­mis­sion. A hear­ing proved the charges spe­cious. Cup rac­ing was put on hold un­til the ge­nial Sir Thomas Lip­ton is­sued the first of what turned out to be his five chal­lenges from 1899 to 1930.

Dun­raven left three lega­cies. His yachts es­tab­lished the sport’s last­ing im­age for spec­ta­cle. He cor­rectly ob­served that the Amer­ica’s Cup was a whole new type of event, part sport and part nau­ti­cal

prov­ing ground for na­tional sta­tus. And his ex­pe­ri­ence proved that no mat­ter how the com­peti­tors and their back­ers be­have, the Amer­ica’s Cup will sur­vive.

NathaNael G. her­reshoff (1848-1938)

Ei­ther of the Valkyries might well have won the Cup had their op­po­nents not been de­signed and built by Nat Her­reshoff of Bris­tol, Rhode Is­land. He was an MIT-trained en­gi­neer and a crafts­man whose de­sign method was to ap­ply a whit­tling knife, sand­pa­per and his en­cy­clo­pe­dic knowl­edge of boats to a block of pine. The tiny mod­els were turned into yachts, some pretty and fast, oth­ers ugly and fast. The 1903 yacht reliance— with a 144-foot (43.9-me­ter) length, a 16,000-square­foot sail area and a crew of 66—was as at­trac­tive as an I-beam, yet af­ter she over­whelmed Lip­ton’s hand­some sham­rock III in 1903, Lip­ton snapped, “I don’t want a beau­ti­ful boat. What I want is a boat to win the cup—a reliance.”

His son L. Fran­cis de­scribed “Cap­tain Nat” as a “short-spo­ken, unso­cia­ble man.” Known to throw jour­nal­ists out of his of­fice, he couldn’t scare away the Mor­gans, Van­der­bilts and other rich yachts­men who were cut from the same mold. Bris­tol­built boats were that good. His busi­ness was build­ing gi­ant yachts, and he re­served his af­fec­tions for a few small boats. One was the pi­o­neer­ing cata­ma­ran amaryl­lis that he built in 1876 and quickly showed her sterns to mono­hulls. There also was the skiff he and his blind brother Lewis, when they were young, sailed across France through rivers and canals. Nat de­vel­oped her lines into a sweet six­teen-foot-eight-inch sail­ing dinghy named Co­quina, in which he took quiet, soli­tary sails—al­ways (of course) within sight of the busy Her­reshoff yard.

harold s. VaN­der­bIlt (1884-1970)

“Some­how or other, Mr. Van­der­bilt al­ways won,” my fa­ther told me as he re­flected on sail­ing and play­ing ten­nis with Harold Van­der­bilt. Nick­named “Mike” for his force­ful per­son­al­ity, Van­der­bilt loved all games and es­pe­cially con­tract bridge (which he in­vented) and the Amer­ica’s Cup (which he won three times). An ama­teur skip­per in big boats usu­ally com­manded by pro­fes­sion­als, he may not have been the most skilled helms­man, but he made up for that by be­ing so well or­ga­nized that one was al­ways stand­ing by. He some­times seemed to en­joy the de­sign and build process as much as he did the yachts. “Whether it is sail­ing, farm­ing, writ­ing books—it doesn’t mat­ter. It is build­ing, cre­at­ing that in­ter­ests me.”

“The low point in my sail­ing ca­reer,” he wrote, was in the 1934 Amer­ica’s Cup off New­port, Rhode Is­land. Al­ready two races down to the faster Bri­tish chal­lenger, his 130- foot J- Class sloop rain­bow was trail­ing when he handed the steer­ing wheel to a gifted helms­man named Sher­man Hoyt, who pulled off the win. His con­fi­dence re­vived, and no longer on the de­fen­sive, Van­der­bilt al­tered rain­bow, sailed ag­gres­sively and won three straight races along with the Amer­ica’s Cup. Three years later, he as­sem­bled a de­sign team that cre­ated the re­mark­able ranger, which dom­i­nated the Cup as thor­oughly as the ugly reliance had back in the Lip­ton era.

Brainy, com­mand­ing and of­ten ruth­less, Mike Van­der­bilt could also be deeply sen­ti­men­tal. When his 1930 yacht en­ter­prise shut down Lip­ton’s last Amer­ica’s Cup hopes, he wrote with sym­pa­thy in his log­book: “Our hour of tri­umph, our hour of vic­tory, is all but at hand, but it is so tem­pered with sad­ness that it is al­most hol­low. To win the Amer­ica’s Cup is glory enough for any yachts­man, why should we be verg­ing on the dis­con­so­late?”

Dennis Con­ner (1942-)

Dennis Con­ner was a San Diego draper when we col­lab­o­rated in the 1970s on a book whose ti­tle, “No Ex­cuse to Lose,” ex­pressed his ob­ses­sion with win­ning sail­boat races. Back then, few would have pre­dicted that he would be the first Amer­i­can to be beaten for the Amer­ica’s Cup. At New­port in 1983 (in the fourth of his nine tries for the win) he was up against the fast Aus­tralia ii, with a keel sprout­ing winglets. In the best-of-seven se­ries, Con­ner’s Lib­erty won most of the early races, but Aus­tralia ii re­cov­ered and won the de­ci­sive race seven. Con­ner (rep­re­sent­ing his home­town San Diego Yacht Club) es­tab­lished an am­bi­tious and suc­cess­ful R&D ef­fort for the 1987 Cup races at Fre­man­tle, Aus­tralia. The prod­uct, stars & stripes, had a clean sweep against the Aus­tralian de­fender. Back home, Con­ner and his crew were given a ticker-tape pa­rade down Manhattan’s Fifth Av­enue and re­ceived by Pres­i­dent Rea­gan at the White House.

Soon, corporate spon­sors ap­peared, and they led to salaried sailors. The role that Harold Van­der­bilt con­sid­ered a hobby was rapidly evolv­ing into a busi­ness. For Con­ner, the boat was merely a tool of his trade. “I don’t go down to the dock and pet the boat be­fore I take it out,” he wrote in his book, “Come­back: My Race for the Amer­ica’s Cup.”

“When I do go out, I thrash the boat around the course. I pun­ish it. I’m likely to crash it into other boats. To me, boats are sim­ply a means to an end, al­though a boat’s per­for­mance has a lot to do with my hap­pi­ness.” Later, af­ter fi­nally sep­a­rat­ing from the Amer­ica’s Cup, he dis­cov­ered a gen­tler nau­ti­cal hap­pi­ness, restor­ing clas­sic wooden boats.

LArry eLLison (1944-)

When elim­i­na­tion of most of the Amer­ica’s Cup na­tion­al­ity rules al­lowed skilled free­lance sailors to move across bound­aries, and when the old, heavy keel­boats were re­placed by live­lier and more tech­ni­cally de­mand­ing craft, a new type of pro­fes­sional rac­ing sailor emerged from the ranks of Olympic medal­ists and one-de­sign cham­pi­ons. They helped stim­u­late more com­pet­i­tive­ness and change in the Amer­ica’s Cup dur­ing the past 30 years than oc­curred dur­ing the first 130 years in to­tal. Be­fore 1987, the races were held only in the east­ern United States. Since then, such a wealth of tal­ent has spread so broadly that Aus­tralia, San Diego, New Zealand, Spain, San Fran­cisco and Ber­muda have hosted races.

All this time, the stakes were ris­ing and the prin­ci­pals be­came more ag­gres­sive. Dis­putes be­tween chal­lengers and the Amer­ica’s Cup holder that used to be set­tled in quiet ne­go­ti­a­tion be­came ar­gued in open court. Some law­suits were brought by, or against Larry Ellison, the ag­gres­sive re­cruiter of free­lance sailors and owner of the cur­rent Amer­ica’s Cup de­fender, as well as the or­ga­nizer of

‘When I do go out, I thrash the boat around the course. I pun­Ish It. I’m lIkely to crash It Into other boats. to me, boats are sIm­ply a means to an end, al­though a boat’s per­for­mance has a lot to do WIth my hap­pI­ness.’ —dennIs con­ner

this year’s match at Ber­muda. Bruce Knecht, who wrote a pair of books about Ellison—“The Prov­ing Ground” and “The Come­back: How Larry Ellison’s Team Won the Amer­ica’s Cup”—has spec­u­lated about why Ellison is drawn to the sport: “The cup in­volved all of his most mo­ti­vat­ing hot but­tons: com­pe­ti­tion, money and the ap­pli­ca­tion of rad­i­cally dis­rup­tive tech­nolo­gies.”

A sailor for much of his life, ini­tially on San Fran­cisco Bay in small boats and later in ocean rac­ers, Ellison first chal­lenged for the Cup in 2003, when the races were held at Auck­land, New Zealand, in Amer­ica’s Cup Class keel boats, which had re­placed the smaller 12-Me­ters. Af­ter win­ning the cup in 2010 at Va­len­cia, Spain, in an im­mense tri­maran, Ellison hired Rus­sell Coutts, a past cup-win­ning helms­man for New Zealand and Switzer­land, to cre­ate and man­age the 2013 match in 72-foot high-per­for­mance cata­ma­rans on San Fran­cisco Bay. One of the best jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for pay­ing skilled pro­fes­sional sailors well and hir­ing them full­time is this type of boat. Like an IndyCar, it is a de­mand­ing and un­sta­ble high-speed ob­ject that teaches lessons quickly—and some­times bru­tally.

As the sailors learned how to de­sign hulls so they lifted above the wa­ter on foils at speeds of 40 knots or more, the race rules, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of high-ve­loc­ity crashes and capsizes, re­quired them to wear im­pact-re­sis­tant clothes and hel­mets and carry oxy­gen tanks in case they went into the wa­ter. Af­ter the death of a sailor and ac­cu­sa­tions of cheat­ing with a boat’s struc­ture that were true, and af­ter the in­evitable dis­putes about rac­ing rules, the match be­tween Ellison’s Or­a­cle team (fly­ing the Stars and Stripes with just two Amer­i­cans in the crew) and the New Zealand team pro­duced thrilling rac­ing and an even more ex­cit­ing nar­ra­tive. The Ki­wis jumped out to a huge lead. Or­a­cle Team USA, its per­for­mance im­prov­ing rapidly with tech­ni­cal ad­just­ments, chipped away and fi­nally won.

Like Con­ner, Van­der­bilt, Her­reshoff and Dun­raven, Ellison can be crit­i­cized for slic­ing away the ro­mance of the Amer­ica’s Cup with the sword of ruth­less, busi­nesslike am­bi­tion, but also like them, he has a soft spot for the Auld Mug. When he came aboard af­ter the last race, in­stead of sound­ing off about his achieve­ment, he paid due re­spect to the event it­self, go­ing from sailor to sailor and re­peat­edly ask­ing, “Do you know what you’ve done? You’ve won the Amer­ica’s Cup!”

LEFT TO RIGHT: Lord Dun­raven; Valkyrie III’s de­signer, G.L. Watson; and the yacht’s skip­per, Ed­ward Sycamore dis­cuss mat­ters be­fore be­fore a Cup match in 1895.

Nathanael G. Her­reshoff was one of the most in­flu­en­tial yacht de­sign­ers and builders of his—or any—time.

Harold S. ‘Mike’ Van­der­bilt de­fended the Cup three times in the 1930s. Here he steers the J-Class En­ter­prise.

Dennis Con­ner won the Cup four times dur­ing his il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer with the event. He also has the dis­tinc­tion of hav­ing lost it in 1983 to Alan Bond’s Aus­tralia II while de­fend­ing for the New York Yacht Club. The club held the Cup for 132 years be­fore th

Soft­ware ty­coon Larry Ellison shaped the Amer­ica’s Cup as we know it to­day with the in­tro­duc­tion of high-per­for­mance cata­ma­rans.

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