Story and Photosby Grace Trofa
The America’s Cup is one of the most sought after trophies in all of sports. The yacht America won the first race held in 1851 (45 years before the modern Olympics), and the United States held on to the trophy until that fateful day in 1983 when everything changed. The 12-meter Australia II, with the winged keel and those wild Aussies from Down Under aboard, wrestled the Cup in a heart-stopping final tacking duel on the water as the international yachting community gathered in Newport watched in shock and disbelief. Newport was no longer the home of the America’s Cup.
It’s been almost 30 years since an America’s Cup race has taken place in Narragansett Bay, but for four days—June 28th to July lst, 2012—the community rolled out the red carpet and welcomed home its beloved Cup. In this internationally recognized sailing community, Newport will always be home for the America’s Cup. After competing in international cities like Venice and Naples, sailing in Newport felt like a community event for an international audience. After watching the series of both fleet and match racing, it is safe to say, “They came, we saw, they conquered.”
It’s a new America’s Cup; faster, more exciting, raced by a new generation of sailing heroes. Previously, experience was a valued asset onboard, but now the physical demands almost dictate a younger, physically fit crew. Russell Coutts remarks how the reaction time to make decisions on these boats is so much faster and how everyone is focused on the importance of getting a good start. It’s hard not to be seduced by the adrenaline rush as these AC45 racing catamarans skim the surface of the water, teetering on the edge as they make their way around the course at speeds reaching 25 knots. On race days, all eyes were on the committee boat watching for the yellow flags counting the minutes until race time. News helicopters circled overhead and TV boats cruised with cameramen awaiting direction from a guy stationed in a booth on shore. The spectator fleet of mega yachts—classic yachts like the steam ship Cangara, the J boat Hanuman, and the bright red converted Nantucket Lightship—shared space with just about anything that floats as they jockeyed for position along the edge of the race course.
The weather did not disappoint; clear blue skies and warm temperatures coupled with shifting winds and changing tides that made for a challenging course. Though TV viewers most likely had a better understanding of the race thanks to the amazing graphics and commentary, nothing can compare to the sights and sounds of watching the race first hand. The rushing sounds of the water against the boats, the shouts of the crewmembers as they made their way around the course, and the cheering support of the spectators on shore voicing their approval of tactical maneuvers provided a moral boast for competing teams.
Fort Adams proved a perfect venue for the course, with water on three sides. The AC45s made their way into the open racecourse from the waterway where they were lined up behind the leading boat. Tide shifts during the course of the race forced many of the boats within shouting distance to shore, much to the delight of crowds perched on the rocks where they spread out beach blankets or viewing the racing from the deck of the VIP Club 45.
Among the nine teams competing, crowd favorites were the two Oracle boats, with old pro Sir Russell Coutts going head-to-head against the pit bull from Sydney, Jimmy Spithill. This would not be racing if there were not tense moments. On Saturday, Oracle Team Coutts’ leeward shroud hit the mark boat as they were rounding the mark. While it was a great photo opportunity for the photographers on board the mark boat, the shroud exploded, forcing the boat to return to shore for repairs. The team made a valiant effort to return to the course; however, they missed the deadline by minutes, much to the disappointment of the crowd watching the boat return to shore. Emirates Team New Zealand also had its share of drama when the boat capsized. As the extended 22-meter wing quickly filled with water, it took more than an hour to bring the boat upright—an image that brought home the danger involved in the sport. Fortunately there were no injuries.
The best and most coveted seat in town was to be the extra man on board the French challenger Energy Team. Shifting from side to side at the rear of the catamaran was only for the physically fit, but you could not get any closer to the action unless you were an actual crewmember. Loïck Peyron, French multihull champion and Energy Team skipper, like Russell Coutts, represents the old guard—Peyron has crossed the Atlantic 50 times in 30 years—but in Newport all his buddies, all top French sailors, were in town hoping to sail on board and wanting to coach the team. “That is a problem,” Peyron said. Senator John Kerry, an avid yachtsman, was the extra man on board during one of the team’s victories. Peyron says, “It was funny, you could see he was excited for us, but he had to subdue his enthusiasm out of respect as we passed by and beat the American Oracle team.” English entrepreneur and yachtsman Peter deSavary (who had America’s Cup challenger Victory in the 1980 and 1983 Cup races,) experienced the race this year as the extra man on board Energy Team. He reported that when the team made a bad tactical maneuver, everyone aboard started to swear in French and took out cigarettes. Even Larry Ellison made an appearance, and was spotted speeding across the water on one of the team boats.
After four days of racing it was safe to say the Newport event was champagne sailing. And speaking of champagne, never let it be said that yachtsmen don’t know how to party. Moët& Chandon has been a sponsor of the America’s Cup since 1987 and special AC moments are now called Moët moments. The champagne lounge set up on the grounds of the fort was a popular gathering spot. Moët sponsored a private champagne party prior to the America’s Cup party in the music room of the Breakers mansion. Once owned by the Vanderbilts, this waterfront estate is considered the most impressive of Newport’s Gilded Age mansions. In honor of the return of the America’s Cup to Newport, Moët offered guests beautiful crystal flutes filled with 1983 vintage champagne, commemorating the year the America’s Cup was last in Newport. Needless to say, though music and food awaited guests on the portico and lawn of this sprawling estate for the AC party, guests tended to linger, enjoying every last sip. Most partygoers then moved on to the Clarke Cooke House for a formal dinner and more of the bubbly. Anyone familiar with Newport has spent time at this nautical watering hole, the place to see and be seen, as the lines formed at the entrance proved.
The America’s Cup World Series was a six-event, around-the-world parade featuring the best sailors and the fastest boats. But they may have saved the best for last by concluding the series in Newport. Sure it may not have had the pomp and ceremony of some of the other locations, but Newport impressed the teams with their affection for the Cup races, their love and knowledge of the sport and the deep attachment they have to all things Cup related. A member of the Prada team touched his heart when he talked about watching an elderly man carry a folding chair down the long walk to the shoreline in order to sit and watch the races. A member of the media team Daniel Ferrando—and one of the first on the scene—says, “It’s so nice to be here. While at the other venues there is an interest in the sport, here there is a real affection for what the AC represents, it is part of the history of the town and you can feel that warmth in the people.”
The big photo op was to pose next to the America’s Cup trophy. In this town, the main thoroughfare is America’s Cup Avenue. There are permanent AC exhibits and collections in this town where sailing lessons are a rite of passage, and the children know their America’s Cup history because it’s their history. On Youth Sailing Day, 100 eager future sailing champions stood politely in line for an autograph or a chance conversation with some of the skippers. They sat on the grass in groups, discussing Cup strategies and when the opportunity to pose for a group photo on stage with the skippers arose, children scrambled up the stage stairs in their excitement.
Iain Murray, once a competing skipper during the 1980s Australian Cup challenges and the 34th America’s Cup regatta director, perhaps summed it best. “It’s always great to come back. Newport is a very yachting friendly town; everyone here has a common interest and is sympathetic. The education and understanding of the people of yachtsmen and what we do is tremendous—better than probably any other place in the world. It is a very traditional and historic town that protects its past very well,” he said. “Coming back here 29 years later, with AC45’s and all our whiz bang, electronic media rules and bits and pieces, it’s a nice contrast between the old and the new and I think the two have come together very well.”
In San Francisco, teams will be racing aboard AC72—traveling three miles in 6 ½ minutes, according to Murray. Stay tuned for some wild racing; it’s a new America’s Cup race and it’s exciting.
For more information, visit americascup.com.
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