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Big money chased the scoundrels, and the fun, out of the Cup

2007 May 17
I have to admit it. It's been gnawing at me for months, perhaps even years. It's a dreadful thing that I can't control.

I've tried to hide it, but when I get around my sailing friends, it seems terribly obvious. I imagine they are looking at me sadly, shaking their heads at the person I've become. I wonder if they talk about me behind my back. I know that some of them don't return my phone calls and, when I stop at the yacht club bar, there seem to be turned backs and averted eyes.

But I know there are many others out there who, like me, have been afraid to stand up and be counted. Who wake up in the morning and wonder why this has happened to them.

What is this terrible secret that is worse than the heartbreak of psoriasis or the shame of dandruff?

I'm not interested in the America's Cup anymore.

There, I've said it. Some may shake their heads at this heresy, but I suspect that many of you will nod your heads in secret agreement. You may not be ready to come out of your closet (or sail locker, as the case may be), but I know your pain.

As I write this, there are just a few days before the last "Act" (whatever that is) in the current America's Cup, and by the time you read this, the America's Cup will soon be over and done. It will either be defended successfully or some team will win it and take it away.

And I don't give a damn one way or the other.

How can I say this when, for nearly five decades, the America's Cup has been as much a part of my life as salt water or sunburn or hiking straps? I was just a kid in 1958 when Briggs Cunningham got together a bunch of friends, built a 12-Meter named Columbia, and practiced for three months. He then went on to win the "modern" America's Cup, which had fallen by the wayside with World War II and the demise of the mighty J-boats. As the skipper of an eight-foot dink, I was transfixed.

I read every word I could get about the America's Cup, but details were sketchy in that era: an occasional newspaper mention, a passing comment on television. I kept a hoard of old sailing magazines under my bed, and the pages about the America's Cup quickly became dog-eared and worn from my constant scrutiny. Briggs' beefy grinning face, the professorial look of Olin Stephens, who both designed Columbia and crewed aboard her, even the pictures of her launching at the old Nevins yard on City Island … they remain engraved in my memory.

Today, there is a wealth of coverage-magazines, television, Internet-but I've lost interest. It all just seems so … dare I say it … boring?

This comes from a Cup junkie who has followed the Cup as a spectator, sailed Cup boats, covered the Cup as a journalist, and unabashedly supported the America's Cup.

There was a time when I could tell you the name of every grinder for every syndicate, who made the sails, which yard built the boats. Today, I can't name a single skipper. I've lost interest. It feels like a death in the family.

And why is that?

I think there are a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the America's Cup is no longer about countries racing countries but, rather, it's a contest between ego-driven billionaires trying to prove who has the bigger Johnson. When it stopped being about national pride, it turned into a battle of bucks. And that has all the appeal of a corporate takeover.

I liked the nationality thing. For this America's Cup, the "American" team is named for a German luxury car and a global software dynasty with a New Zealander at the helm and a Frenchman as tactician. Its main competitors are a Middle Eastern airline and a European fashion house, while the defender, from landlocked Switzerland, is proud that it has 21 nationalities on its team.

Something else is missing, too: the memorable sailors. Now all the sailors are professional and they make their livings by winning trophies for rich owners. Good for them but, in the process, they've become homogenized and politically correct. And boring.

Give me a Ted Turner, who had the audacity to get completely smashed after he won the America's Cup, which was hilariously obvious when he slid from his seat during the trophy presentation. Not politically correct, but memorable. The Mouth of the South made the America's Cup fun.

Give me a Tom Blackaller, who decided in the wee hours of one Cup morning to spin a few donuts with his car on the lawn of his arch-rival, Dennis Conner. He gave the Cup flavor.

Give me Baron Bich, who fired his skipper and sailed the race wearing a blazer and white gloves, only to get lost in the fog.

Give me a Michael Fay, who found a loophole and challenged with a 130-footer, only to be swatted down by Dennis Conner in an equally unsporting catamaran.

Even Dennis Conner: love him or hate him, but that man can sail. Always awkward on land, he could turn a dud of a boat into a winner, and even when he lost the Cup, he was still Mr. America's Cup.

Give me a Raul Gardini, the charming Italian who wanted so badly to win the Cup, but lost it with grace.

My America's Cup was populated by larger-than-life sailors who, whether they were funny or rude or heroes or scoundrels, all helped make it a fascinating sporting event. Today, we have plain vanilla crews, faceless in their perfect crew uniforms.

I'm not sure I'd give up a "CSI Miami" rerun to watch this America's Cup, and that's particularly sad because so many of the changes in the America's Cup have been to "improve" its television image. Shorter races, faster boats, more "Acts" (What a stupid name that is.); all in vain.

Remember the dark winter nights of 1987 when America sat up all night watching the America's Cup on the other side of the world in Fremantle, Australia? When Dennis Conner won the Cup back and sailed into the harbor with a huge American flag from his backstay?

So, dear reader, you know my secret. I haven't bought a single America's Cup T-shirt or souvenir this year and, in fact, I even put my Stars & Stripes watch at the back of the sock drawer.

Maybe I'll sell it on eBay to someone who cares.