Lost in the weekend blitz of Winter Olympics, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day and the Chinese New Year – cheers to all you kindred Tigers out there – was the news yesterday that America took the America’s Cup back. There was a time, a generation or so ago, when any news of the America’s Cup was everyday bubbler conversation in Rhode Island. The way Texans talk rodeo, Rhode Islanders spoke sailing.
Local reporters covered the regattas, the parties, the intrigue and the celebrity sightings in Newport with a verve normally reserved for shenanigans at the State House. It was Newport’s claim to fame on the global sports scene, the site of the Cup defense from 1930 to 1983, when Australia finally broke through and defeated the Yanks from the New York Yacht Club in a thrilling seven-race finale. I say thrilling. There were many who equated the thrill of watching sailing with the thrill of watching Astroturf grow. But most Rhode Islanders have a thing for boats, even if they only keep one in their driveway. Wind and wave, line and sail run in the blood here. There’s a yacht on the back of the state’s commemorative quarter. Fort Adams in Newport hosts the Museum of Yachting and the Herreschoff Museum in Bristol features the America’s Cup Hall of Fame. So even though the America’s Cup was always a kind of oceanic bowling for billionaires, many Rhode Islanders felt a kinship because they sailed the same waters, understood Narragansett Bay’s hazards and vagaries, and probably even knew someone on the crew of one of the yachts. Someone who grew up in our coves learning on sunfish and sailing through our winters with the frostbiters.
Like all international sporting competitions, the America’s Cup has always been politicized and stigmatized by more off-the-water drama than on. There have been scandals, charges of cheating, bad sportsmanship, countless legal battles over the interpretation of the Deed of Gift and many memories of a drunken Ted Turner stumbling through the streets of Newport after winning with Courageous. Even the latest America’s Cup was a disputed affair, marred by court challenges, culminating in a rare, best-of-three, head-to-head duel because the sides couldn’t agree on the rules for a traditional regatta involving multiple teams.
Among the oddities of the Cup is that since 2003 it has been held in Switzerland, a land-locked country. The Swiss staged their races in Valencia, Spain before BMW Oracle boss Larry Ellison representing the Golden Gate Yacht Club of San Francisco won it back for America yesterday. You’d think that San Francisco would be the frontrunner to hold the next Cup race, but so far Ellison seems open to the idea of defending in Newport in a 2013 regatta, marking the 30-year anniversary of America’s first loss. San Diego’s also in the mix, but even though Newport long ago got over losing the Cup, there are still a few old salts around who would like to see it come back, if only to see the New Zealand sailors perform the haka again.
What is your favorite America’s Cup memory?