Wednesday, September 25, 2013

America's Cup 2013 Ends in a Winner-Take-All

I've been a big sports fan for most of my life, so even as a kid and teenager had heard of the America's Cup. I knew that somewhere in the world, we raced boats against the world's best, and that we always won. That's about it.

The first time that I can remember actually following the event in TV sports reports and shows, in magazines, and in our local papers was in 1977. That was when Ted Turner, yes THE Ted Turner of CNN fame, skippered "Courageous" to her 2nd straight victory in the event.

That victory made it 107 straight years that a team from the United States had won the event. Not since the very first series of races held way back in 1851 when the Royal Yacht Squadron of England had defeated a team from the New York Yacht Club off the Isle of Wight had the Americans suffered the agony of defeat. The New Yorkers defeated the Brits in 1870 to claim the Cup, and it was in American hands ever since.

In 1980, the New York Yacht Club would again take the honors as the America representatives in the race series, a distinction that was theirs for every single America's Cup challenge to that point. Again, the NYYC came up victorious with "Freedom", taking the series by 4-1 over a team led by Alan Bond of Australia, who was challenging for the 2nd straight finals.

The America's Cup seemed to be becoming more a tradition and celebration than a sporting event, as every 3-4 years the USA's best had been taking on some challenger or other from England or Canada or Australia and beating them, usually handily. But something was different about that Aussie Bond, and he showed in 1983 off the coast of Newport, Rhode Island just what that difference was.


In that 1983 series, Bond's yacht "Australia II" showed up with a major engineering design enhancement, a winged keel that proved to give it a significant advantage in 'stays', though a disadvantage in choppy seas. Still, in good conditions anyway, the Aussies now were able to fight the Americans evenly, and it showed on the course.

Australia II had dominated the challenger series and was considered a formidable match for Dennis Connor and his "Liberty" yacht acting as the American defender. The American team won the first two races in the best-of-7 series, and held a 3-1 lead looking to bring the Cup home once again for the New York Yacht Club. But then, history happened. Australia II and skipper John Bertrand won the next two races, forcing a 7th and deciding race for the first time in the competition history.

On September 26th, 1983, almost 30 years to the date ago, Connor and the crew of Liberty bolted out to an early 8 second lead. But that lead would not hold. The two crews battled hard, and the lead changed hands 3 times. On the next-to-last leg, Australia II and her hard-working crew took the lead. Down the stretch towards the finish, they continued to widen their lead as the conditions greatly favored the winged keel. The Aussies pushed across the finish line a healthy 41 seconds ahead of the Americans, and the America's Cup was no longer America's property.

The Royal Perth Yacht Club of Australia were now the Cup holders, and the Aussies would defend their new hardware successfully in 1987 at the Port of Perth in Fremantle Harbour, sweeping the first non-New York entry from America in 4 straight races. The San Diego Yacht Club had taken the challenger series, but her boat "Stars and Stripes", skippered again by Connor, proved no match for the Aussie's "Kookaburra III" yacht.

The rivalry was clearly on between the Americans and the Australians for yacht-racing supremacy. A year after the loss in Perth, Connor came back with a catamaran design in a challenge that the SDYC hosted at San Diego. The Aussies had called for the challenge in shorter than the usual 3-4 years, and ultimately paid by giving up the America's Cup in a sweep to "Stars & Stripes 88" of the USA.

In the quarter-century since, the America's Cup has see-sawed in and out of different hands. Four years after Connor had reclaimed it, Bill Koch and "America3" successfully defended, but would be the last American winner until 2010. Americans lost the cup again in 1995 to a team from New Zealand, and then could not even get back to the finals until 2010. In between, the Kiwi's and a Swiss team 'Alinghi' had overtaken the Americans former dominance.

In 2010, 'BMW Oracle Racing' and the 'Golden Gate Yacht Club' successfully stepped up to the challenge, and finally brought the America's Cup home with "USA-17", sweeping "Alinghi 5" in the finals off the coast of Valencia, Spain. And so we built up to the current America's Cup finals, where 'Oracle Team USA' and the GGYC are hosting in the San Francisco Bay, the first-ever races in American inland waters that bring the racing within view of the shoreline.

With a newer class of speedier boats sailing under new rules, the competition has been fierce, and accidents have been many in the challenger series leading up to these finals pitting USA's 'Oracle Team USA' against the challenger's 'Emirates Team New Zealand'. These are now a first-to-9 wins series, and Emirates bolted to an 8-1 lead. With the America's Cup in sight, the Americans fought back, winning 7 straight races to tie the series and set up today's winner-take-all race.

As I type this, the deciding race is coming down to the dramatic finish. The Kiwis bolted to an early lead, and held their lead at the 2nd of 4 gates, but the Americans caught, passed, and have pulled away from them, taking a huge lead coming towards the finish. And there it is, the Americans win! Oracle ends with a massive pull away victory, and an epic series comeback. For the first time in 2 decades, America's Cup has been won by the Americans in back-to-back competitions. All is right with the world, at least the world of expensive yachting.

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