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Billionaires foil the majesty of America's Cup racing

2017 May 1

Twenty-two minutes.

Doesn’t seem very long, does it? 

It probably seemed really long to Denmark’s Stig Severinsen, however. He earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records by staying underwater for an astounding 22 minutes. And, no, he didn’t have a scuba tank: He held his breath.

One thousand, three hundred and twenty seconds.

But still, 22 minutes isn’t very long by most standards. It’s the time that Martha Stewart recommends for a hard-boiled egg, including cooling. It’s the time Delta Airlines says it will take to deliver your baggage. 

And it’s the time that Russell Coutts, the grand wizard of the new America’s Cup, says it will take to complete a race.

Just 22 minutes!

The whole concept of the “new” America’s Cup offends me, but 22 minutes is just silliness. What kind of match race is that? A drag race around a reaching course? Heck, 7-year-old kids in Optimists sail longer races than that, and the America’s Cup is supposed to be the Everest of sailboat racing.

Or was….

I should have seen the writing on the men’s room wall when the billionaires took over. I should have written it off when Michael Fay challenged with a 90-footer and Dennis Conner successfully defended the Cup with a catamaran. 

I’ll be called a diehard, but I liked the America’s Cup when it was between nations. For this 35th Cup, the Oracle “USA” defender (my sarcastic quote marks) was mostly built in New Zealand, with input from French aerospace consortium Airbus and, worst of all, there will only be two Americans crewing aboard the “American” boat. Maybe only one.

The tactics seem to consist of getting to the reaching start close to the gun and then, at speeds in the mid-50s, not hitting each other for the next 20 minutes. But that may be what the audience is hoping to see: a 100-mph crash. 

What happened to the majesty of yacht racing? To spinnakers and crew work? To tactics? To sail changes? 

The billionaires, in their quest to provide an “entertainment event,” have tossed the baby out with the bathwater. There is nothing left of the original America’s Cup or its Deed of Gift except the name. And I, for one, have no problem simply giving the Auld Mug to Larry Ellison of Oracle and letting him call it Larry’s Cup. Then we can rebuild the America’s Cup into something that resembles real sailing.

What we have now are catamarans powered by immense wings: no sailcloth involved. You see many wings around your marina? Me either.

Then you have the crews. The sailors dress for a race like SEAL Team Six dresses to go attack someone. I grew up sailing in shorts and T-shirts, unless it was wet, when I wore foulies. These America’s Cup crews call their outfit “body armor,” and that’s exactly what it is: protection from their own boat.

Start with the life jacket, but not just any life jacket. It’s now called an “impact vest” because it’s designed to protect the sailor during a crash. There is a life jacket function built in, but the vest is heavily padded and streamlined because, at 50 knots, drag is bad. Can’t find those at West Marine.

Using pedal power to power its hydraulic system, Emirates Team New Zealand sails its America’s Cup Class foiling catamaran in Auckland, New Zealand.
Hamish Hooper/Emirates Team New Zealand photo


Then they have a helmet, also to protect them from their boat. It’s fitted with a radio for communication, but most of the grinders only have one-way communications: they can’t talk back. They’re just grunts needed for the muscle.

Let’s see, then we have the spare air canister because one America’s Cup sailor was already killed when he was trapped under a capsized Cup catamaran and couldn’t get free. So the latest air supplies have eight to 10 minutes of extrication time. There’s also room for a hydration pack with a shoulder feed tube so the crews don’t get dehydrated during the 22-minute race. 

The Oracle USA sailors at the 34th Cup had exotic Tag Heuer watches that showed the hydraulic oil pressures. Any of you real sailors have one of those for your boat? Thought not. 

Then we get to the real weaponry: Every crewmember carries two knives for slashing themselves free from the trampoline or a line that might hold them underwater. Hey, in the good old America’s Cup days, every bowman had a knife on his belt, but it was to cut a tangled sheet away in an instant, not to save his life. 

The outfit is finished with high-top laced sneakers like those Keds we wore as kids, but these are high-tech versions of the “felony flyer.” They have lugs to grip the netting and protect against twisted ankles.

You have to hand it to the Kiwis, who decided not to “grind” the pumps to power the hydraulic system that controls the sails like old-time coffee-grinder winches, but to pedal them. Yep, watching the Kiwis pedal around the race course will be like watching the Tour de France … from behind. 

For all who want to call me a dinosaur, as Coutts once did, I really find yachts on foils fascinating. Too bad they had to ruin the America’s Cup.

The America’s Cup isn’t about tweaking valves or maintaining hydraulic pressures. That has nothing to do with sailing. The America’s Cup has become contrived, sterile and graceless. 

So I’ll be interested to see how the 22-minute race works for them. I know it’s longer than the attention span of a goldfish, but watching a bunch of nameless rear ends pedal a sailboat around a race course doesn’t strike me as entertainment, and it certainly isn’t the America’s Cup. 

Twenty-two minutes. I’m not holding my breath!