In 1851, a group of canny New York businessmen formed a racing syndicate and commissioned a sailing yacht under the condition that it was to be the fastest sailing vessel in the world. It wasn't. Soon after it was launched and christened the America, it was beaten in a race by the private yacht of one of the syndicate members. Undismayed, the syndicate negotiated a partial refund from the builder, and sent America off to England, where they hoped to win personal and national glory by besting the boats of the Royal Yacht Squadron. They also hoped to win lots of money by betting on the outcome.
After much goading, the Royal Yacht Squadron reluctantly agreed to a race pitting the best boats in its fleet against the America, and put up its "100 Guinea Cup" as a trophy. Fortunately for the New York syndicate, the Royal Yacht Squadron didn't do a good job of laying out the rules of the race. Due to a generous interpretation of the rules, and a couple of accidents, the America crossed the finish line first. It won the "100 Guinea Cup" for its owners who, after toying with the thought of melting it down, donated it to the New York Yacht Club under the condition that it be used "as a perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries". It was known forever after as the "America's Cup", named for the yacht that won it.
The America herself was immediately sold off to an Englishman, passed through a few more hands, and wound up in Georgia where in 1861 she was purchased by the Confederate Navy and put into service as a blockade runner. After the fall of Jacksonville, the Confederates scuttled her to keep her out of Union hands. However, the Union Navy managed to raise her and press her into service as a blockade enforcer. After the war she was sold back into private hands, and took part in the 1870 America's Cup Race.
In the 132 years subsequent to America's victory in 1851, the New York Yacht Club hosted 24 challenges to its ownership of the Cup and won them all. Many of the challengers complained bitterly that the New York Yacht Club manipulated the rules to its favor.
The New York Yacht Club's amazing run of victories came to a dramatic end in 1983 when Alan Bond's Australia II of the Royal Perth Yacht Club overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat Dennis Connor's Liberty 3-4 in the best-of-seven series. Key to Australia II's victory was a controversial "winged keel" design that allowed the center of mass to be lowered without exceeding the severe draft restriction of the 12 meter class then in use. The "wings" on the keel actually functioned similarly to winglets on an aircraft, mitigating votexes caused by the keel's unusual upside-down trapezoidal shape.
Three years later Dennis Connor won the cup back but this time for the San Diego Yacht Club (due to his falling out with the New York Yacht Club), after defeating Alan Bond's defending Kookaburra III soundly in Fremantle.
Only one year after bringing home the cup, Dennis Connor received a surprise challenge from Michael Fray of New Zealand. As by tradition the host determines the rules of the challenge, Conner was not obliged to accept the challenge, however he saw a glaring loophole in Fray's terms: There was no mention of how many hulls the defender was to have! Fray's attempt to return America's cup racing to the rarefied world of mega-yachts backfired as Connor met Fray's 120' monohull Goliath with a blindingly-fast 60' catamaran. Connor also had to defend the cup in the courts as Fray challenged his interpretation of the rules in a case that went all the way to the supreme court. As a reaction, a new class boat design for future America's Cup racers was developed: the International America's Cup Class (IACC).
In 1995 Connor again lost the cup, this time to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. In 1999, the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron became the first non-american club to defend the America's Cup by defeating the Italian Prada challenge 5-0 in a best-of-nine series.
Which brings us to the 2003 series...
The America's Cup consists of two phases: The Challenger Series, and the America's Cup Match. In recent years, the Challenger Series has also been known as the Louis Vuitton Cup. In the Louis Vuitton Cup, the field of challengers is narrowed down to a single challenger. In the America's Cup Match, the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup races against the defender (i.e. the previous winner of the America's Cup) in a best of nine series
The Louis Vuitton Cup opened with two rounds of round-robins in which each challenger faced each other challenger in a one-on-one match race. The winner of each race was awarded one point. At the end of the round-robins, the eight highest scoring challengers entered the quarter-finals. The four highest scoring challengers are in a double-elimination group, with the loosers from that group getting a second chance against the winners of the single-chance group. In the semi-finals the single-chance and double-chance structure is maintained similarly. The quarter finals and semi finals are best-of-seven series, and the Louis Vitton finals and America's Cup are best-of-nine series.
2003-Quarter Final Matchups
- Alinghi Challenge (Switzerland) vs. Prada Challenge (Italy)
In a way, this match is a repeat of the 1999 America's Cup. Alinghi Challenge is lead by Russel Coutts, who also lead Team New Zealand's successfully defense in 1999 against Prada Challenge. Joining Coutts are several other former Team New Zealanders including tactician Brad Butterworth.
Alinghi Challenge is the early favorite for the Louis Vuitton cup, and the top seed in the quarter finals. However, Prada came on strong in round 2 of the round-robins, and performed a modification to their bow (known as a "nose job") just prior to the start of the Quarter finals. In the racing on Tuesday, Prada looked quite strong downwind, but was loosing out to Alinghi upwind. Prada also drew a penalty for striking Alinghi as a result of poor communication between the bowman and the helmsman.
Alinghi leads 1-0
- Oracle-BMW Racing (USA) vs. OneWorld Challenge (USA)
Ok, I promised you a Larry Ellison vs. Paul Allen matchup. Here it is: Ellison is the guiding force and primary funder of Oracle-BMW Racing, and Paul Allen has provide OneWorld Challenge with funds in the 8-figure range. Ellison plans on being on the boat whenever possible (although he seems to be at OracleWorld San Francisco right now) and steering whenever things aren't best left to veteran helmsman Peter Holmberg. Allen doesn't seem to have much involvement with OneWorld except providing the dough. He stepped in after Craig McCaw's Nextel stock, which was to be the principal source of funding, took a dive.
These two teams seem to be very evenly matched, and this series promises to be very exciting. Both teams also draw heavily on refugees from Team New Zealand's 1999 defense. In Tuesday's racing Oracle beat OneWorld by 12-seconds on account of a penalty on OneWorld for a right-of-way violation.
Oracle leads 1-0
- Victory Challenge (Sweden) vs. Le Defi Areva (France)
Victory Challenge, with crew from every Scandinavian nation, is an overall underdog but scores points for reliance on native talent instead of hired guns. Le Defi is also regarded as a long-shot, but with a yellow hull and a long graceful transom overhang, scores points for aesthetics on the water. Their sail number is also FRA-69, which might get some people rooting for them. Le Defi was rammed and damaged by Greenpeace protesters as retaliation for the sinking of Rainbow Warrior by French agents back in 1985, and related demonstrations outside the team compound in Auckland could be bad for crew morale.
Victory Challenge is the favorite in this series after beating Le Defi handily on tuesday.
Victory Challenge leads 1-0
- GBR Challenge (UK) vs. Stars and Stripes (USA)
This is being billed as the match for traditionalists who remember when the America's Cup was primarily a trans-atlantic affair. GBR represents the first British entry in the America's Cup since 1987. After putting together the campaign from scratch, they did better than expected in the round-robins. Stars and Stripes is Dennis Connor's entry, who has been ubiquitous in the America's Cup in recent years, having been either the defender or successful challenger in every cup between 1983 and 1995. Dennis Connor seems to have graduated from day-to-day control of the syndicate and has become more of a fund-raiser in chief and figure-head.
GBR Challenge and Stars and Stripes were very evenly matched in the round-robins and this is expected to be a tight race. Stars and Stripes does have an ace up it's sleeve though - the boat they used in the round-robins was their back-up boat, their primary boat having sunk during training in California. That boat has since been raised, repaired and returned to service, and is expected to be faster than the boat used previously. In the racing on tuesday, Stars and Stripes drew a penalty before the start but went on to open a healthy lead. GBR came back late in the race, and after Stars and Stripe's penalty turn, went on to win the race.
GBR leads 1-0
The Defender: Team New Zealand
After successfully defending the cup in 1999, Team New Zealand (TNZ) suffered a bit of a melt-down. With uncertain funding and a poor hand-off of leadership, many of the brightest stars jumped ship to challenger syndicates. This was a double-whammy, as TNZ's loss was their competitor's gain. In addition, what funding they could find was only about half of what their better-funded competitors have mustered (about $40 million as opposed to $80 million). To put things in perspective, New Zealand's total exports in 1995 amounted to about $18 billion, while Larry Ellison's personal fortune is about $15 billion.
Fortunately for TNZ, their talent pool was deep, and despite the personnel losses they still have a solid team with good leadership. In addition they have the home-field advantage of sailing in their home waters and being based out of their own hometown. Still, no one expects their defense to be as easy as in 1999 when the trounced Prada Challenge 5-0
How to Watch
If you're in the US, and you're lucky enough to get OLN (Outdoor Life Network), tune in tonight at 9pm or 12am to watch race 2 of the Oracle/OneWorld match. In the UK BBC2 has promised to cover it. If you're in New Zealand, you may be sick and tired of America's Cup coverage, but I can't help you there. Elsewhere, check your local listings.
Yahoo is offering live streaming content, but it costs money and requires IE.
A Word on Penalties
If you're not familiar with sailing, some of the penalties may be baffling. I don't have space here to go into the rules of sail racing, but most of the penalties you will probably see have to do with failure to give way. There are a set of rules which determine which boat in any given situation has the right of way. Failure to give way to the boat with rights incurs a penalty. In America's Cup racing this penalty can be cleared by performing a 270-degree turn, which can be performed at any point within the race, but which is generally performed just prior to the finish.