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Once upon a time there was Camelot and the America's Cup

2010 March 2
I was pedaling along, nose in a newspaper, when a raised voice penetrated the electronic din of whirling exercise machines: "Hey, Bill, what's going on in the America's Cup?"

It came from a fellow on the stationary bike next to mine who turned out to be an acquaintance from boating circles. I had to tell him that America's Cup competition had degenerated into a years-long court fight between two billionaires to be followed by a racing series between the billionaires and their teams sailing enormous multihulled machines. I added, trying to put at least a little positive spin on things, that the racing would be held in Valencia, Spain, instead of a place called Ras al-Khaimah, where one of the billionaires wanted it held but was thwarted when a court ruled that the America's Cup Deed of Gift frowned on a venue in the United Arab Emirates because it was in the wrong hemisphere.

My acquaintance, looking perplexed, said, "I guess I'm sorry I asked."

He's a powerboat owner, not a sailor, but was once a big America's Cup fan. In our conversation, he recalled details of some of the great Cup matches of the late 20th century, named the sailing stars of that era's Cup races and said he kept an America's Cup memento displayed in his house-a framed print of a painting by Dennis Conner.

"It's a shame that's all gone," he said.

True enough, but an understatement. I'm not going to waste space here flogging the billionaires. They can't help themselves. Hard-charging billionaires need all the gratification money can buy and the fact that they've been able to turn something as revered as the America's Cup-I'm sure there are still teary-eyed denizens of yacht club bars somewhere referring to it as the Auld Mug-into a toy for their own amusement is but another manifestation of their ability to succeed at just about anything.

But I am going to spend a few hundred words reminding myself and any readers who would like to join me (granted, at the risk of wallowing in nostalgia) of what sailing has lost. By sailing I mean the community of sailing, the loose affiliation of all of us, individual sailing enthusiasts, our clubs and sailing centers, the companies that make the things we use in sailing. For this community, the America's Cup was once a cherished icon of dramatic sailing history and extraordinary sailing skill and technical innovation. Today it stands for nothing that matters to sailing or to anyone except a few stakeholders.

There is an abiding sense of bewilderment over the non-sailing world's lack of interest in what we do and in the rewards and challenges that attract us to the water and the craft we use to enjoy it. We hear ad nausea about France, where the masses understand sailing and follow sailing competition avidly and winning sailors are national heroes. Well, the French are different in a lot of ways and, besides, they don't have NFL football games to keep them occupied on weekends for half of the year. But it is nevertheless strange that in America, a country that embraces such a broad and diverse array of interests, sailing is perceived as an esoteric, if not silly, pastime pursued by privileged people in things called yachts. Until it all went to hell, the America's Cup was changing that.

There was a time when America's Cup reporting was regular fare on the sports pages of American daily newspapers. Magazines, not sailing magazines, mind you, but general interest magazines, covered Cup racing. Time magazine, 99 percent of whose millions of readers had surely never set foot on a sailboat, put Dennis Conner on its cover. There he was, on the front of the February 9, 1987 issue of Time, gripping the wheel of the 12-Meter Stars & Stripes, in spray-wettened white foul-weather gear, zinc oxide-coated lips arched in a smile, the headline "Going For It" set into the dazzling, cerulean Australian sky behind him. Peeking over his shoulder from a tiny thumbnail photo in the upper right corner was Mikhail Gorbachev. The leader of the Soviet Union got second billing to a yachtsman.

A few weeks later, after Conner had gone for it and won it, Sports Illustrated, the weekly journal of mainstream sports read mainly by football, baseball, basketball and hockey fans, put Conner on its cover along with Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States. They were locked in a joyous embrace of the America's Cup trophy.
When I came back from Fremantle, Western Australia, after covering Conner's recapture of that trophy, I was surprised to find invitations from local service clubs wanting me to give programs about the America's Cup. When I recounted my experiences and showed slides of 12-Meters and their crews battling in the steep indigo seas produced for the Cup races by the formidable sea breeze called the Fremantle Doctor, the merchants, bankers and insurance agents of the Rotary Club and the Chamber of Commerce not only stayed awake, but contributed comments and questions indicating they had followed the Cup enough to recognize the skippers, know that in sailing parlance a grinder had nothing to do with coffee beans and tell a spinnaker from a jib.

Now that seems like ancient, nearly forgotten history, or a myth like Camelot-a time when America's Cup racing was so compelling it introduced millions of Americans to sailing.
One of the reasons that time was real, and not a myth, was that those Americans were rooting for Americans competing against sailors from another country. (I'm sure many fans didn't know the Cup was named for a boat, not a country.) Remember that quaint rule, the one that said America's Cup boats had to be sailed by citizens of the country of the sponsoring yacht club? The instant that requirement was repealed, and Cup teams were no longer identified by nationality, the America's Cup began its descent to irrelevance.
If Joe Six Pack and the Joe the Plumber and all manner of regular Joes were interested in the America's Cup in that golden age, sailors were nigh on to obsessed with it. SAILING 's special America's Cup issues were some of the biggest and best-selling we've ever produced. Now we don't bother.

As these words are being transmitted to the electronic file for the March issue, the 33rd America's Cup series is supposed to be a few days from starting. By the time the issue reaches readers, the series could be over-or it might not even have been held because the billionaires are back in court, this time over the burning issue of where one boat's sails were made. (It speaks volumes about the absurd state of the Cup that the nationality of sailors doesn't matter, but the nationality of sails is worth going to court over.) The billionaire currently holding the Cup has announced that if the decision goes against him he will forfeit the America's Cup.

As if we give a damn.