Imagine a place—as we descend here in the United States to the start of our second year under the scourge of the coronavirus—where life has not only resumed but is thriving, at its usual, normal pace. Where you can meet your mates in the pub for a pint, where games are played in stadiums full of screaming fans, where you can pop down to your local yacht club for the weeknight beer-can races and bring along as many folks as you can pile aboard. Where masks are strictly for Halloween. Where kids run safe and free. Where science isn’t considered an inconvenient, politicized joke.
You know, a place like New Zealand. Right now, this minute, in 2021. It’s almost too hard to believe, right? And the tiny island nation of just under 5 million lucky souls— and more great sailors than you can shake a hiking stick at—will this month once again be the center of the sailing universe, as the site of the 36th running of the America’s Cup.
It sure would be great to head on down for the festivities, at sea and ashore. However, unless you’re a citizen or permanent resident of the so-called Land of the Long White Cloud, you can’t. But that doesn’t mean we have to refrain from being a little jealous, or can’t take a moment to reflect on the sane and beautiful country, or even follow the proceedings from afar. This COVID-ERA Cup—scheduled to unfold from March 6-21 —might be totally strange, but it’s still fascinating. The event website has plenty of great content and information on how to follow the action (americascup.com).
As far as which teams will meet up to duel for the Auld Mug on the wondrous Hauraki Gulf—a gorgeous and panoramic body of water, flanked by the lush Coromandel Peninsula to one side, the city of Auckland on another, with the iconic dome of dormant volcano Rangitoto serving as the punctuation point—at press time only one element of that equation was clear. The Defender of the trophy, representing the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, is Emirates Team New Zealand, skippered by a prodigal young Kiwi named Peter Burling, a two-time Olympic sailing medalist who led the New Zealanders to victory in the previous Cup series, off Bermuda in 2017. Burling is just the latest in a long line of talented New Zealanders who, as the saying goes, punches well above his weight.
The ultimate Challenger will come from a trio of syndicates: the Italian Luna Rossa squad, the Challenger of Record; Ineos Team UK from the United Kingdom, led by the British superstar Sir Ben Ainslie; and the New York Yacht Club’s American Magic team, under the command of Terry Hutchinson, a charismatic son of Chesapeake Bay.
Had I typed up this little story a week ago, I would’ve stepped out on a limb and named American Magic’s entry, Patriot, as the odds-on favorite to challenge the Kiwis. That is no longer a foregone conclusion; in fact, it might be just the opposite. That’s because in mid-january, in a race against the Italians in the Prada Cup, the regatta to determine the Challenger, Patriot was literally launched from its foils in a sudden squall moments after a mark rounding and crashed to a standstill, holing the boat in the melee. It took a concerted effort from local officials, competing syndicates and the Yanks themselves to keep the boat from sinking. How they will respond—again, as we went to press—is anyone’s guess.
Which brings us to those boats: the AC 75 class of high-performance hydrofoil monohulls—controversial, spindly, foiling beasts capable of 50 knots of boat speed and NASCAR-STYLE wipeouts. Some longtime Cup followers feel that the vessels, aside from being dangerous, are wildly inappropriate for boatversus-boat match racing. But one thing everyone can agree on: Once they’re up and foiling, it’s hard to look away.
I was fortunate to cover the Cup in New Zealand in 2000 (when they first defended it) and in 2003 (when they lost it to “traitorous” ex-team New Zealand studs Russell Coutts and Brad Butterworth, who’d defected to the Alinghi syndicate). It was nothing but fun because New Zealand is simply mad about sailing; even every cab driver, it seemed, had a considered and reasoned assessment of the racing.
This time around will be way different. But I’ll still be on the edge of my seat. Even during a pandemic, there’s still only one America’s Cup.