“Your Majesty, there is no second.”
Back in 1851, one of America’s greatest novels, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, was published. A swashbuckling sea adventure centered on a captain with a determined, single-minded focus, it eventually became a literary classic and a standard-bearer for seafaring romanticism.
That same year, another nautical adventure, the America’s Cup sailing race, first took place. This race has also become a nautical standard bearer—as the world’s oldest continuous international sports competition. To put it in perspective, it predates the modern Olympic Games by forty-five years and even the start of the Civil War by a decade.
The inaugural race for the 100-Pound Cup, as it was originally known, was billed as being open to “Yachts belonging to the Clubs of All Nations.” However, only two nations actually competed: America, which fielded one vessel, and heavily favored England, which had fifteen. They raced for fifty-three miles around the Isle of Wight, with the lone American entry winning handily.
England’s Queen Victoria witnessed the race and, when informed that the winning boat was American, asked who finished second. The well-known response would be symbolic of the serious, competitive tone over this race’s history.
And the name of the winning yacht? America. The coveted trophy had itself a new name. After that first race, there would be many challenges for the Cup—but not every year. In a sense, this nautical competition is more like an old-fashioned duel: there’s a defender of the America’s Cup and a challenger, and a challenge can be made at any time. This explains why there have been only thirty-four races over the past 160-plus years—and why winning the coveted Cup is so meaningful.
One thing that stayed consistent in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though, was the America’s Cup trophy largely staying put in New York. The US successfully defended over the next twenty-four consecutive races—reeling off an unprecedented 132-year winning streak—and held the mantel until 1983, when the Australia II and its uniquely designed winged keel shocked the United States team, winning the best-of seven challenge 4-3.
Even though the US won back the trophy in 1987, the aura of invincibility was gone—and more and more challengers lined up to compete for the America’s Cup. After a fifteen-year drought, America recaptured the trophy from Switzerland in 2010 and is the defender of the cup heading into the 2017 race. This tradition that began over 150 years ago is still going strong, with each of these teams feverishly chasing its own version of the white whale—the America’s Cup trophy, the grand prize of a sailing race with a history as rich as the hues of a Bermuda sunset.
With the thirty-fifth event on the horizon, we asked Sir Russell Coutts, CEO of the America’s Cup—plus a five-time winner of the race and an America’s Cup Hall of Fame inductee—to share his perspective on the race’s history and global scope, the rigorous preparation of the teams involved, and how the Bermuda locale affects the 2017 event.
How many people witness America’s Cup races?
There are several ways to answer that question, as there are a variety of ways people can interact with the America’s Cup in the modern era.
Let’s start with live events. We run the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series (the races that are a precursor to the main event) around the world in the run-up to the 2017 America’s Cup. At those events we have seen hundreds of thousands of people come out to watch the racing and take in the whole event atmosphere, so that’s a good starting point. For 2017, that number will be increased again as we head through all the America’s Cup activity in Bermuda until the end of June, so we are likely to be talking closer to 1.5 million by the time the thirty-fifth America’s Cup ends.
Next up, we have TV audiences in the millions watching worldwide: on NBC in the US, BT Sport in the UK, Canal+ in France, and a whole range of other primary national broadcasters that carry our race events—and then hundreds more channels that run news and feature reports on the America’s Cup. On top of that, you can add traditional media coverage, in newspapers and magazines, on TV and radio, and we have hundreds of journalists at each event, so there are hundreds of millions of people around the world reading about us, listening to news reports on the radio about us, and watching TV news about us.
Then there’s social media, an area where we are growing fast because we have content people who want to interact with and share with others. Our audiences across all our social channels are loyal, engaged, and counted in the millions.
Taking all these channels into account, we arrive at a number that is in the billions. We are an exciting, engaging product that people want to know more about, and that’s what gives us such a strong global fan base—one that is growing at a strong rate, and one that really does care passionately about the America’s Cup.
How long do these teams prepare for the race? How do they prepare? Do they focus mostly on their own team rather than studying the other teams?
The teams are constantly preparing. Every single day. Whether it’s working on teamwork, physical performance, strategies, or diet and nutrition, anything that they work through each day is all to prepare for racing.
The AC45F catamarans we raced in the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series—which were upgraded with hydrofoiling capabilities to lift the boats out of the water at high speeds—were only used by the teams at the race events. Between events, the sailors were back at their bases running what are known as test boats: interim vessels that are precursors to the ACC (America’s Cup Class) boats that will be raced in 2017, so the teams use every second they have on the water at the events to prepare for the races, but everything else they do benefits them as well, so really the answer is that their lives are completely dedicated to preparation for the main event in 2017.
Do they watch the other teams?
Yes. Watching what their rivals are doing is part and parcel of the America’s Cup’s history, and they are watching constantly for anything that might help them understand better how to beat their rivals. Whether it’s technical details about their boats, the way a crew operates on the water, or their support teams, it is all information that might help find a weakness, something that can be exploited. The margins between winning and losing at this level are so small, anything can count. So, yes, they keep an eye on each other, and I suspect that will always be the case.
How often is weather a factor in the event? How do the sailors cope with it?
Weather is obviously an important factor in all forms of sailing, and that is certainly true for us. Our race boats are incredibly impressive and extremely high tech, but without wind they cannot operate at peak performance, and with too much wind they are, like any boat, not going to perform as we would like. We do have contingency plans in place to cope with bad weather at all our events, so we are never faced with a situation we haven’t planned for, and the America’s Cup Class boats racing in 2017 are now so advanced that they will hydrofoil at incredibly low-wind speeds, increasing our ability to put on the “show” when faced with suboptimal weather conditions.
In addition, the sailors cope with whatever is thrown at them, as we would expect them to. They are professionals. They know that weather is something they cannot control, so they work with what they have in front of them.
In your opinion, what’s more important to a successful race: a strong start or a strong finish?
A strong start is key, but as we see in a lot of our events, that’s only one factor in a successful race. A good team takes a holistic view of the whole event, not focusing on one area above others, but prioritizing, planning, and executing to the best of its abilities throughout the whole event.
What do you feel is the most important race in the America’s Cup’s illustrious history?
There are so many great races, I don’t think it’s possible to pick one out as more important than the others, apart from one exception: the first race back in 1851. Without that race, without America winning in front of Queen Victoria, and without the whole history of the America’s Cup unfolding from that point, we would not be talking about the America’s Cup.
So even though it might not have been as compelling to watch as a race in 2017, that first event is, arguably, the most important race in America’s Cup history. Having said that, another standout moment was in 1983 when Australia beat an American boat for the first time in 132 years, ending the longest winning streak in sports history. That was a game-changer, in every sense of the word.
This is an event of such international magnitude. What does it mean to the team—and the country—that wins the America’s Cup?
It means you have beaten the best in the world and you have the honor of winning the oldest trophy in international sport. This is a sport that combines athletic ability with technical prowess, so there are many different elements a country can be proud of if its team wins. Now, in 2017, the support the teams receive from their home countries is incredible, and victories are celebrated in the same way that Olympic gold medals and World Cup championships are. It is an incredible honor to win an America’s Cup, and its victories are rightfully held in the very highest esteem.
What has been the race’s most important technological/design advancement in the past twenty or thirty years?
There has been so much change, it’s hard to pin it down to one advance that stands out from the rest. The America’s Cup is going through a revolution, and there is a range of key areas that are seeing huge changes, such as the switch from monohulls of old to multihulls today, the change from offshore to onshore racing in stadium-style arenas, the use of wings above the water with mainsails now replaced with wingsails, and with the introduction of daggerboards and rudders with hydrofoiling capabilities under the water.
On TV, we now have Emmy Award-winning graphics packages that bring the viewer right into the heart of the action in a way that demystifies the sport of competitive sailing, and if you compare the sailors today to those of even thirty years ago, they’re like chalk and cheese. A 2017 America’s Cup sailor is a supreme athlete, comparable to sprinters or Tour de France cyclists, and someone who can perform at peak output levels for sustained periods, much akin to any of the highest-level athletes in the world.
What will the Bermuda locale bring to the thirty-fifth race?
Bermuda is the perfect place for us to stage the 2017 event. The weather is consistently good for racing, the island is beautiful, welcoming, and provides, in the Great Sound, the perfect stage for our events. It is situated within easy reach of the USA and Europe, and that also means TV audiences worldwide can tune in at good times locally. The island is gearing up fast, and it is going to be the perfect host to the 2017 event.
For more info, visit americascup.com.