The America’s Cup is named after the schooner America, the first winner of the sailing regatta match around the Isle of Wight in England in 1851. The cup is the oldest active trophy in international sport, 45 years older than the modern Olympics. Both contests took place last month, and while many flocked to Vancouver for the winter games, I headed to Valencia, Spain for the sailing. It was a tough call, as I had taken pictures at the half-pipe in Salt Lake in 2002, which was thrilling, but I had to witness this special America’s Cup. The 33rd Cup would be like no other.
On Feb. 14, 2010, a unique wing sail boat from the Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco, Team BMW Oracle Racing’s USA 17, won the 33rd America’s Cup challenge against the Swiss defender Alinghi 5.
The Swiss chose Valencia, as the match has to be sailed on a sea or ocean, and as the defender of the cup gets to write a protocol — in essence the new rules, including what types of boat are eligible — for the next cup. However, many of Alighni’s moves led to a litany of ugly litigation that’s been going on since July 2007, making this one of the most contentious cup races ever.
There will even be a ruling on March 10, 2010 to wrap up this edition of the cup. The outstanding issue is whether Alighni’s sails are made in country. They are not; they are 3DL sails made by North Sails in Nevada. One of the court rulings was that the race would take place in 10 months time at a mutually agreeable location. Alinghi tried to have this race in the Middle East, but that’s another story. The two teams could not agree on anything, so Valencia was a default location — though everyone knew that February racing in Valencia would not be ideal due to the cold weather and oscillating wind conditions.
The atmosphere at the port was different from any other cup. It was anticlimatic. It was cold. It felt like a ghost town. The ongoing court cases made bitter enemies out of the teams, fans and most associated with the cup.
The 33rd America’s Cup (it is run approximately every three to five years depending on the defender’s protocol) was a best of three races format. The first boat to win two matches would win the cup. Race One was to be a windward leeward race of 40 miles. Race Two was a triangle course of 39 miles.
Team BMW Oracle Racing’s trimaran USA 17 has a 185-foot mast and a rigid wing sail that is 223 feet tall, 90 feet wide, and 90 feet long. Alinghi 5 is a catamaran. These boats were built especially for this race, using the most modern means. The estimated costs for both teams is $200 million.
The races were scheduled to begin Feb. 8 and then take place every other day. Typical winter weather in Valencia meant the first race date was not to be. We arrived at the port at 6:15 a.m. to see the boats off. It was the first time I had ever seen the boats leave in the dark. Although it was unlikely the winds would pick up, everyone headed out to wait until late afternoon, when the race was called.
The winds on the second scheduled race day, two days later, were too strong. BMW Oracle seemed content with the winds, however Alighni did not — it was common knowledge their catamaran was built for lighter wind. The race committee delayed the harbor start and abandoned racing after noon.
After a week of waiting, the start of Race One was a nail-biter. James Spithill, the 30-year-old skipper of USA 17, hoped to get a foul on Alinghi 5 (a penalized boat needs to complete a 360 degree turn, which for these types of boats equates to 1,000 meters), and he did, although not in the manner he had expected. The Alighni did not avoid USA 17, the right-of-way boat, and as a result USA 17 had to head up and came to a virtual stop. Right-of-way is a basic sailing rule, which means the other boat has to provide ample room for the right-of-way boat to proceed without interference.
USA 17 came to a complete stop and Alinghi 5 bolted away. Alinghi 5 quickly garnered a 600-meter lead. However, it was not for long. For the first time, we witnessed USA 17 “power up” and quickly pass Alinghi 5. Team BMW Oracle Racing critically reoriented the craft and USA 17 continued to accelerate for the remainder of the race. It was apparent USA 17 was faster upwind, but rumors had it that Alinghi 5 might be faster downwind. But the first five minutes of the downwind leg proved that notion wrong. USA 17 was faster upwind and downwind! USA 17 dominated the race and won by 15:28 minutes — the second largest lead in cup history.
For Race Two, I was on the boat of Alinghi 5’s host yacht club, the SociÃ©tÃ© Nautique deGenÃ¨ve, waiting next to the commodore, Pierre-Yves Firmenich. At about 4 p.m. I asked him what time the cutoff was for the race. He replied, 4:30 p.m. Then I observed him texting, I imagined with his race committee folks, who were trying to postpone the start of the race, stating that the seas were in excess of one meter. Please look at the pictures of the start of Race Two: the seas do not look in excess of one meter. It is extraordinarily rare that any member of the defending yacht club would refuse to run a race when directed by the head race officer. Team BMW Oracle Rac ing and USA 17 were present and ready to race, but Alinghi 5 was nowhere to be found.
With bated breath, we watched the postponement flag come down at 4:25 p.m. At the last possible moment, head race officer Harold Bennett got the sequence started. Alinghi 5 was late for the start and thereby incurred a penalty. Team BMW Oracle Racing started with good speed, practiced solid match racing tactics, and positioned themselves well for the first mark rounding — which saved them, as Alinghi 5 had better boat speed most of the way up the track. However, Team Alinghi was in a predicament with strategy, as they either had to pass or duck USA 17 for the lay line. Alinghi 5 had to play it safe, which allowed USA 17 to pass, and thus round the first mark in the lead. This was the most interesting and closest leg of the entire match. Once ahead, USA 17 continued the lead and won Race Two 2 by 5.26 minutes. With the sun setting, we headed in for the awards.
I was so excited and wanted to jump for joy, but as I was a guest on Alighni’s boat, I did not. I contained myself until I saw my American friends onshore.
It was sad to see people who have worked with the cup for many years, cry, hold and shake their heads. However, I was impressed that the Alighni fans, on the boat, cheered and rang the cowbells for USA after the race. I took it as a sign of hope that the cup will return to Corinthian sport of its past.
The date and location of the 34th America’s Cup has yet to be determined. San Francisco, home to the Team BMW Oracle Racing yacht club, the Golden Gate Yacht Club, is the first choice. San Diego and Newport, R.I., have been mentioned as possible alternatives.
Louisa Gould is working on her next book, The America’s Cup — A Decade of Change 2000-2010. Anyone who would like to see more images, please go to louisagould.com and sign up for the e-newsletter or stop by the Gallery at 54 Main street, Vineyard Haven. An avid yachtswoman and photographer, she has been involved with each Cup since the 2000 race in Auckland, New Zealand.