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Tom Patton: America’s Cup

Tom PattonNow, I realize that there may be those of you who are regular readers of this column who will be clicking over to Andy Rooney when you see the headline, but something really cool happened Sunday, and it’s unfortunate (to me) that more people don’t care.

America is back in possession of The America’s Cup.

“The what?”, I hear many of you cry. Only the oldest continuous trophy in sports. And if you’re still not sure… it’s a sailboat race.

“But Tom, watching sailboats race must be about like watching paint dry,” many of you may be saying. And for some, I suppose, that’s true. But the America’s Cup is not just any weekend one-design match race (he said, slipping into sailboat-racing jargon). The race is about prestige, huge sums of money, and some of the most interesting technology outside the space program you may ever hope to see.

There was a time when it was mostly a foregone conclusion that The United States of America would win the America’s cup. First contested in 1848, when Queen Victoria established a “100 Guinea Silver Cup” as a prize for a sailboat race around the Isle of Wight. The American schooner “America” beat 16 British boats in that first race. The legend goes that the queen asked “Who won?” “America,” she was told. The second part of the quote motivates sailors to this day. “Who came in second?” the queen reportedly asked. “Your Majesty, there is no second,” was the response.

Sounds kind of like politics.

And for 132 years after that, the cup remained in the United States.

The boats changed, and eventually they became finely-honed traditional-looking single-hulled boats that sailed for the prize mostly off Newport, Rhode Island. Every three years, the sailing world looked to the U.S. East Coast to see which challenging team the Americans would beat in this defense. All that ended in 1983, when an Australian boat with a radical “winged” keel, which has become a standard design feature on many cruising boats, took the Cup down under.

The names of some of the captains from those days are ones you may recognize. Ted Turner, who created CNN, and a few other cable television channels, owned more than one America’s Cup boat. And a Deed of Gift challenge which won the cup back for the U.S. from Australia in 1988 made Dennis Connor a household name for a while.

The team that developed the catamaran “Stars and Stripes” included Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, which is currently working on “Spaceship Two” with Sir Richard Branson. “Stars and Stripes” easily outsailed the Australian monohull to bring the prize back to the U.S. … albeit to San Diego rather than Newport. But American dominance of the Cup was over.

What makes BMW-Oracle’s win Sunday in a best-of-three Deed of Gift match against the Swiss boat “Alinghi” so amazing was not the race its self, but the hardware used to win it.

BMW-Oracle is a high-tech trimaran (boat with three hulls) with a mainsail that has more in common with an airplane wing than a traditional sail. In fact, the “sail” itself is larger than the wing of a Boeing 747. It’s a semi-rigid airfoil constructed of a Kevlar material that makes the boat go very, very fast. How fast? At one point off the coast of Spain, BMW-Oracle was making 33 knots of boat speed in an 8 knot breeze. That’s 37 miles per hour when the wind was blowing less than 10 mph.

The Alinghi catamaran, a high-tech marvel in its own right, was no match for the Americans.

So why should we care? That’s honestly a very good question. Can the efficiencies of a sail that can power a boat to nearly 40 miles per hour using nothing but a very light wind translate to something useful to the general population, or even the energy sector? Maybe.

Sailing vessels used to carry all of the worlds’ goods across oceans, and one has to wonder if there isn’t some massive sailing freighter on the drawing boards somewhere that would use little or no fossil fuel to make the same speeds that the coming post-Panamax ships will be able to realize. Not that one would be able to make it under the Dames Point Bridge … but I digress.

But in a nation that so prides itself on being “#1” in so many areas, this event, like soccer, is one that is followed worldwide almost everywhere but here. There was no U.S. television coverage of Sunday’s match that I could find even amongst the more than half-dozen ESPN channels available to me.

When it comes to innovation and technology, the United States stands second to none. The money that’s poured into an America’s Cup campaign would probably make an NFL owner sit up and take notice. And while some would rather watch the grass grow, for many there is nothing more graceful and elegant than a boat under sail.

I’ve had the privilege of falling off the wind and feeling the power of a sailboat under my hands as the wind fills the sails and, with some skill, takes me where I want to go. It’s an amazing thing. Not for everybody, maybe but then, how many people will actually know the thrill of catching a touchdown pass or hitting a home run, and yet those sports attract millions of viewers.

I have to admit, the America’s Cup race snuck up on me as well, but I’m glad I found it as the court battles ended and the racing began … short as it was. Here’s hoping that Sunday’s win is the beginning of another long stretch of America’s Cup wins for the U.S.A.

And now, Richard, for the rest of the sports … back to you.

Our guest this week on The Jacksonville Observer Radio Show is John Reyes, President and CEO of Visit Jacksonville. I hope you’ll join us Wednesday afternoon at 5:00 on ABC 1320, WBOB.

4 Responses »

  1. Was the lack of tv coverage on Sunday due possibly to the fact that these boats have become so extreme that they are scarcely sailing boats,rather exotic and expensive toys with no connection to sailing on the sea albeit technical masterpieces
    In the early days of the Cup the boats were expected to cross the atlantic,more recently 12 metres were converted to cruising when done racing,catamarans and trimarans are used for sailingin open water and you can live on them but these creations have little to do with ordinary sailing and as for sleeping and cruising thats just not on it.

  2. I agree, now how do we convince Larry to have America host the next race for the cup? It would be good for the cup and good for the USA.

  3. Sorry to be a nit-picker but the Stars & Stripes catamaran actually raced against New Zealand monohull KZ-1 in the 1988 match you mentioned and not an Australian entry.