America’s Cup, Whither Away?

By Kimball Livingston Posted November 24, 2014

Apparently, it’s easy to cast stones at the Golden Gate Yacht Club, sixth trustee of America’s Cup, as we confront the prospect of a 35th defense to be sailed (apparently) outside US waters.

What? Not in the Alcatraz Channel, the spectators’ grand arena? With the big winds, the mountains and the backgrounds that the cameras just love? Right under the windows of GGYC? What are they thinking?

I’m pretty sure they’re thinking

Dammit.

Remember, GGYC back in the day had finance problems and —

GGYC in its moment of distress glommed onto the only lifeline in the water.

Now GGYC is in the boat.

Perhaps you remember, Life of Pi?

Life-of-Pi-2

Rolling back a few years (eons?) I beat the drum hard for my home town, for AC-N-SF, and there’s no point pretending now that I’m anything but disappointed at the turn of events since September 25, 2013. I haven’t felt this jilted since that night in high school . . .

Anyhow, I have a mind that can entertain more than one notion at a time. There is the traditionalist in me that values the standards passed from the New York Yacht Club to the Royal Perth Yacht Club and then to San Diego Yacht Club, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron and

[BOINK]

La Société Nautique de Genève wasn’t going to defend on a lake in Switzerland. So SNG went venue shopping and wound up in the south of Spain, in Valencia, and that was a process that had begun, if you follow the thread, with the Russell Coutts decision to leave New Zealand’s national team and go to work for a billionaire from Switzerland. Kiwis took that as a national betrayal. Coutts took it as an opportunity to move the ball for himself — and to shove the Cup toward a more professionalized state of play.

I’m pretty sure that SNG never told Ernesto Bertarelli how to build a team or where to defend the Cup or much of anything else.

Meanwhile, I belonged to a YC that was one of a handful that had been approached by Larry Ellison when he was looking for a burgee for his team to fly. And I for one was perfectly (almost) content that Ellison had instead settled on the club down the street. I’m an America’s Cup enthusiast, not an America’s Cup romantic, and I’ve seen the damage the Cup can do. Of course I’d love to see my club’s name etched into the great trophy of the sport, but I had a theory then that we’d be better off without it, doing the things that we do well. Looking back over the last fourteen years, I’d argue that the evidence backs the theory.

fence

‘Tis a tangled web, and I have often asserted that the America’s Cup has outgrown itself, and outgrown the yacht club structure grandly embodied in the Deed of Gift.

Any organized Yacht Club of a foreign country, incorporated, patented, or licensed by the legislature, admiralty, or other executive department, having for its annual regatta an ocean water course on the sea, or on an arm of the sea, or one which combines both, shall always be entitled to the right of sailing a match of this Cup, with a yacht or vessel propelled by sails only and constructed in the country to which the Challenging Club belongs, against any one yacht or vessel constructed in the country of the Club holding the Cup.

daffyNot for the first time, I observe that this, the signature event of our sport, often serves us badly. The tensions between the 19th century notion of a gentleman’s yachting contest and the 21st century realities of pro sports and spectacle are now tilted heavily toward spectacle, and except for perhaps a decade here or there over the span, there has never been anything like stability. No yacht club can, within itself, manage what Cup competition has become, but how can an independent body swim with the Deed of Gift around its ankle like a ball and chain? And resorting to the courts is the worst, but it has sometimes been necessary and —

It’s worth noting that the now-revered, then newly-knighted Sir Thomas Lipton, when he arrived in New York in 1899 for his first of five challenges, thoroughly irked the local power set when they discovered that he was there with a scheme to use the races to promote Lipton Tea. A scheme that, we observe, worked rather well. Lipton is remembered as the father of the modern PR campaign. You may have heard of Lipton Tea, and the San Diego Yacht Club recently hosted the celebratory Centennial Edition of Southern California’s Lipton Cup, one of those Holy Grail regattas that define regional competition. He had started with nothing, and the man understood sell.

Time moves on. Opinion moves on. In 1930, three decades after Lipton’s first challenge, as NYYC Commodore Mike Vanderbilt was girding himself to dispatch Shamrock V and Lipton’s final challenge, he expressed a great sadness on Lipton’s behalf. Vanderbilt felt the weight of it, and he wasn’t going to not defend the Cup, but he felt no jubilation in the moment. The meddling tradesman had become the grand old man.

Predicting the future of America’s Cup is not a safe enterprise. Never has been. But if, indeed, the match moves offshore on a commercial basis, this is not a sudden turn. It’s one more apron string severed. Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts have been telling us for years that their goal is to make Cup racing a commercially-viable professional sport with a revenue stream based in television.

Depending upon the individual, that concept is anathema, necessary and practical, or merely a dream.

Our boys took huge chances with the San Francisco America’s Cup and almost lost the farm. Toward the end of a Challenger Eliminations series that reached its nadir with the loss of Andrew Simpson, naval architect Bruce Nelson summed up Cup Summer, “Epic fail.”

Which made The Comeback all the more epic, while missing certain marks.

By a hair, Ellison and Coutts get more runway for their experiment.

It’s not outlandish to guess that AC35 might be Russell’s last dance. If, in Bermuda, he can best enrich his already well-lined pockets while securing a workable new future for the Cup — a business case that can be sold to sponsors at a sustaining level — his personal legacy is secure. Since 1995 we have been living in the Russell Coutts era of America’s Cup. We just didn’t know it for a while.

If the experiment comes a’cropper, history will remember that, too.

* * *

True to Tom Blackaller’s prediction, when we got the America’s Cup to San Francisco Bay, we showed the world how good sailing can be.

Now, what a let down.

Could we even begin to get this across without a little help from Loony Tunes? Thank you, Mel Blanc. It’s a Daffy old world out there.

[Lead image cropped, with apologies, from a shot by Gilles Martin-Raget}

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