When I grew up in the sixties and seventies I was into the America’s Cup the way most kids are into the Superbowl. It was one of those things that comes with growing up in New England and racing sailboats. The America’s Cup was the pinnacle of the sport, an event that the United States had never lost, in what I still think are the most beautiful boats ever designed and sailed by mankind: the 12-meter sloop. The names of the skippers were like the names of famous race car drivers to me. Some people were into Sterling Moss, I was into Bus Mosbacher, Ted Hood, Ted Turner and Dennis Connor.
12-meter yachts were the standard class of sloop in which the America’s Cup was raced from the 1950s into the 1980s. The “12-meter” has nothing to do with the length of the boats, but is the result of a formula involving various measurements to arcane to delve into here. The boats were made out of wood until the 1970s, when the rules were changed to permit steel, and eventually Fiberglas. By the 1990s they were gone, replaced by the gross over-commercialization of the sport that turned the boats into billboards and make the event an arms race for billionaires with bigger egos than souls.
Here’s the current state of affairs:
Once we had this:
Now we have this:
I blame it on RedBull, marketing departments, branding experts, and over-Adderalled dickheads who pay to watch technology and not sportsmanship. Now it’s called the “AC World Series” and the crews wear helmets. Bring back Charlie Barr and the J-Boats and ban the logos.
The beginning of the end came with the infamous winged keel that the Australians snuck into the 1982 series (and won it, breaking the American hold on the Cup and threatening to rename it “The Australia’s Cup”), and suddenly the “purity” of the 12-meters was threatened (the rules that govern the America’s Cup, the “Deed of Gift” are beyond weird and were constantly changed by its longtime sponsor, The New York Yacht Club, however it pleased them) a threat that was realized in the stupid series of 1987 when New Zealand showed up with a monster maxi-yacht and the American skipper Dennis Connor countered in desperation with a speedy catamaran. Thus ended the 12-meter era, setting off a round of silly court cases, and today the Cup is raced in ridiculous (to my eye) extreme catamarans which require their crews to wear helmets and pads.
Thankfully, the 12-meter fleet of yesterday lives on in Newport, Rhode Island, the traditional battle ground for the Cup. Last winter, while spending a weekend in Newport with my wife, I muttered something about wishing I could have sailed on a 12-meter. She told me to Google that thought, and a few dayss later I was spamming the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club’s email list with the suggestion that a dozen of us charter one of the boats for a sail in September. Twenty-four people signed up, trusted me with their deposits, and over the spring and summer I pulled together a half-day of sailing aboard the Columbia (winner in 1958) and the Heritage (a contender for the defense in 1970).
We carpooled to Newport on Saturday morning, our arrival coinciding with the annual Newport Boat Show, gathered on Bannister’s Wharf under grey skies, and counted heads until all were accounted for. I called out the names of the two crews, having been advised by counsel to have the boats selected before arriving, and flipped a coin to choose which crew would sail which boat. Then we split up for a day of match racing. Meredith from 12-Meter Charters herded us aboard a launch for the short ride out to the two boats moored in the lee of Goat Island.
The skipper and two crew members stowed our stuff below decks, delivered the obligatory Coast Guard approved safety lecture, and within ten minutes we had the sails up and were gliding across Narragansett Bay towards Jamestown. Everyone started exchanging glances of surprise as the boat took off in the light air. This wasn’t like sailing a typical sailboat, this was more like sitting on top of a floating locomotive with the potential to turn into a bullet train.
I was disappointed it wasn’t windier and sunnier, but there was still hope as it was only 11 am. The front had already blown by and there were hints of sun peeking out to make things encouraging.
We raced informally by crossing each other’s sterns and then beating up to windward into the northwesterly breeze under the Jamestown Bridge to a bell buoy up by Gould’s Island where the Navy used to test fire torpedos. Heritage won the first race, credit taken by Judge Swartwood who had the privilege to steer the boat over the finish line. We taunted the Columbia in the best Monty Python and the Holy Grail sense of taunts , and then broke for a relazed lunch sail out into Block Island Sound. The sun came out. The box lunches came out. The wind started blowing, and we each took our turn at the wheel.
Here’s the picture that says it all: Heritage has the natural, vanished hull; Columbia is the white hull in the foreground. That’s me standing on the Heritage leaning against the boom.
The full photo set is on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/churbuck/sets/72157631559789026/
Having a chance to steer Heritage was like being a Formula One fan who gets to drive a classic Grand Prix car. Here is me trying to look all nonchalant about the experience. I wasn’t. I actually got a little choked up thinking about my old writing teacher John Hersey, and his making me feel very jealous in 1978 when he told me about the time he got to steer Intrepid and used the locomotive simile.
The best part of the day? That actually happened the day before the sail when a taxi pulled into the driveway and my daughter stepped out, a surprise arrival from San Francisco thanks to her godfather Charlie Clapp’s incredibly thoughtful generosity. Charlie is a serious 12-meter junkie. As a kid growing up in Barrington, Rhode Island, the America’s Cup was literally happening in his back yard. This was his fourth sail aboard the boats. Hell, he even owns the shirt.
I’m definitely doing this again.