America's Cup

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Sailing's most important competition as well as the oldest continuously held event in international sport. The name is that of the event's trophy, a silver ewer originally called ‘the Squadron Cup’, or (referring to its cost) ‘the £100 Cup’ or ‘Hundred Guinea Cup’. It was first awarded in 1851 by the Royal Yacht Squadron to the winner of a race around England's Isle of Wight. It came to be called by the name of the American schooner yacht America, which first won it. Since then there have been 31 contests for it, held between 1870 and 2003.

When the surviving members of America's syndicate donated the trophy to the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) they ruled in the deed of gift that it was to belong to the club which won it, and that it was to be ‘perpetually a Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries’. Races occur when the yacht club that holds the Cup is challenged by a yacht club from another country. Since 1871 it has been a match race, that is, between two competitors only.

Traditionally, the competition was always sailed in the largest boats of the time—some of them 27.5 metres (90 ft) on the waterline—and was held in waters of the defender's choice. A ‘mutual consent’ provision encourages the defender and challenger to negotiate many of the conditions, such as the type of boat, the number of races to be sailed, and the maximum wind strength so as not to damage the boats, many of which have been fragile. It is because of the simple, flexible structure of its rules that the America's Cup has thrived for so many years.

In the first challenge, in 1870, James Ashbury, an Englishman, had to face a fleet of yachts in a single race, just as America had done, though he had argued for a match race. He came tenth on corrected time and when he challenged again in 1871 the Americans relented and agreed to a match race—though in the best-of-seven series they claimed the right to have more than one defending yacht. Ashbury did win one race, but lost the other four against two different boats. From that time there was only one defending yacht.

After two Canadian challenges, Britain challenged thirteen times from 1885 to 1958. In the event's low point, in 1895, the challenger, the Earl of Dunraven, charged the NYYC with cheating. Bad feelings hung over the event until 1899, when Sir Thomas Lipton, a genial Scots-Irish food and tea merchant, issued the first of his five challenges. An exemplar of the rule that grand events attract grandiose personalities, Lipton came close to winning in 1901 and 1920 but none of his five Shamrock challengers managed to take home what he called ‘the auld mug’.

Between 1930 and 1937 the matches were sailed in the high-tech J-class yachts as large as 41.8 metres (137 ft) on deck. But they cost too much for a world impoverished by war and in 1956 the deed of gift was altered to permit the largest international metre class boat then sailing, the 12-metre, to be used. About 20 metres (65 ft) long, they had crews of eleven, most of them amateur. The NYYC beat the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1958, then met an Australian challenge in 1962. In this, their first try, the Australians won one race and came close to taking a second. They subsequently challenged regularly, often with very fast boats. The Americans kept winning because their teams were better organized, their boats were better sailed, and their crews were more familiar with the waters off Newport, RI, where the races were moved in 1930.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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