The America’s Cup is a whole new game—again. After decades of effort, those behind the Cup have completed a task once perceived to be impossible. They’ve transformed Cup racing from an arcane, participant-centric enterprise into a thrilling, must-watch spectator sport that even the uninitiated can understand and enjoy.
When I started working for yacht magazines in the late ’80s, I’d already been a Cup fan for a decade, although I preferred—and still do—the more laid-back varieties of the sport such as cruising and performance day sailing. But, just as motor racing fans love the pinnacle series such as Formula 1 and IndyCar, I loved the Cup. It represented the spearpoint of skill and technology.
The first time I watched an America’s Cup regatta live was the 1987 event in Fremantle, Western Australia. I lost sleep with friends who had cable. The ESPN telecasts, hosted by Jim Kelly with analysis by Cup veterans Gary Jobson and John Bertrand, changed the spectating game. Still, unless you were familiar with the complexities of match racing, and sail racing in general, it was all a bit of a blur.
I experienced my first live Cup racing in San Diego in 1995. I made several trips there during preliminary racing and was on hand for the first Cup final match. The view from the press boat provided great views of the starts. We measured leads for our CompuServe sailing forum audiences largely by midcourse crosses and deltas at mark roundings. Whichever boat crossed the finish line first won. It wasn’t an exact science until the final gun, but it was the best we could do. The Cup, as it had been since the beginning, was raced in relatively slow displacement monohulls. Action often unfolded in slow motion, and there were days I wished I could’ve seen it on TV with aerial views and expert commentary.
TV coverage improved steadily during intervening America’s Cups with more onboard audio and video, but the game changed dramatically in 2013 in San Francisco, with a shift from monohulls to frighteningly fast foiling catamarans, inshore racecourses and, most important, the introduction of dazzling on-course graphics coupled with live-action video. The combination of short races (they took hours in the monohulls) and electronic graphics (with overlays of course boundaries and grids indicating separation) left no doubt who was in the lead. The act of viewing sailboat racing finally had graduated to something more like Formula 1 than watching paint dry.
Fast forward to 2021. I’m sitting on the couch with my oldest son, who’s a sailor and professional mariner, watching a race in the preliminary regatta prior to the start of the challenger selection series in New Zealand. This time around, the boats are a striking new breed of 75-foot foiling monohulls that have on their small crews a sailor with the inscrutable title of flight controller. Grinders do their work staring at iPads, as if they were on Peloton bikes. The telemetry at the bottom of the screen is reading a puckering 49 knots of boat speed in 12 knots of true wind. The chase boats are straining to keep pace.
The video from the course and on board the boats is mesmerizing. The team of commentators, which includes veteran American sailor Ken Read, skillfully deconstructs the action. My son, who’s not a racer, understood clearly what was happening. Even my cat took a break from his endless nap to view the action.
Watching the oldest trophy in sport has come a long way since 1987, and light years since 1851, when a pilot schooner called America bested the Brits in a challenge race around the Isle of Wight with a gentleman’s wager on the table. This March, with a screen and a cable or internet connection, you may have the best seat this side of a race-boat cockpit.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue.