Book Published fall 2017, 298 Pages
By Alan Sefton and Larry Keating
Review by Steve Morrell
This reads like a normal history of the America’s Cup—but with all the shenanigans and secrecy that went on behind the scenes by both those who worked to keep the Cup and those who worked to take it away. And what you learn is that not everyone—not the Americans, nor the challengers—always acted with honor and honesty; many used deceit and secrecy both in defense and in pursuit of the Cup. Many also split hairs to try to justify or discredit a win or loss.
Over the years, there was always an attempt to make the America’s Cup race a match race of sorts, although the original was in no way such a race. In that first race, the America was about 112 feet long LOA, but it raced around the Isle of Wight against boats that were of varying length. One was 392 feet, and another, the smallest boat—the Aurora—was 84 feet. The Aurora finished between 8 and 24 minutes behind the America (exact times weren’t taken), and many have said that if the race had been decided on handicap, the Aurora would have won. Not only that, it turns out that the America sailed a shorter course than the other boats, because it was given different sailing instructions for the race than others (others had to round a mark, which increased the distance by several miles). In fact, the race was protested, but when the owner of the protesting boat heard about the instructions given the Americans, the protest was dropped.
Perhaps that controversial beginning set the stage for the many different and varied race conditions that ensued for the next 166 years and 35 races.
But how do you define a “match” race? The only pure way is to have the two boats exactly alike. But if there wasn’t some allowance for design differences, then many of the design advances that the America’s Cup has brought to the world of sailing would never have happened. Many traditionalists would say “good” to that scenario, but let’s face it: The evolution of the America’s Cup boats has been exciting and most of that design innovation has happened in the last 35 years. And that is what much of this book is about.
A good example of the shenanigans and secrecy behind the scenes of the cup challenges started with the 1983 America’s Cup, which took place between Australia’s Australia II, and Dennis Connor’s Liberty off Newport, Rhode Island—a race that ended the Americans’ 132-year winning streak. Rumors were running wild about the unique “wings” that were on the keel that was on the Australia II. But no one knew for sure, so the Australians played it up by keeping the keel cloaked when it was out of the water—a level of secrecy that had never been used before. This prompted more rumors—just what the Australians wanted. But they took it a step further.
While in the pre-race preparations in Rhode Island, they decided to stir the pot and went over to a copy shop near the American team with a “smallish drawing” of the keel and made copies, but left the original in the copy machine. An hour later, they went back and told the store they left a copy in the machine, whereupon the clerk said they had found it and gave it to them. The next day, the drawing was in the local paper—and it wasn’t placed there by the Australians. And the day after that, the Americans were attaching wooden wings to the keel of their trial boat, Freedom (defender of the 1980 Cup race), to see if it would sail better. They soon learned it wouldn’t. The Australians even painted the main keel section the regular color of the hull, but wings a different color so they couldn’t be detected from above, like from an airplane. This proved successful.
After that, there was a lot of controversy that caused the Americans to consider protesting that the new design was not fair, that the boat was not a “legitimate” challenger. But it was late in the game at that point, and they thought it would make them look bad to stop the races so late. The decision was made to continue the races—on the day before they were scheduled to begin. The Australians won 4-3.
There’s much more to the wing keel story that goes way beyond the scene in Newport, but you’ll have to read the book to learn all those. But this was the beginning of coming changes that changed the face of the Cup races and the boat designs. Also, it’s typical of how America’s Cup boat design has really influenced sailboat design in general. Today, a wing keel is quite common (I’ve owned two myself)—and it all goes back to that 1983 race.
Since that race in the early 1980s, the Cup boats, races and race locations have changed dramatically, going from monohulls to multihulls and back again twice. This book shows that it is the changing interpretations of the original Deed of Gift, which was intended to set the course of future races, which have enabled the boat designs and rules to evolve into what often seems like a totally different set of rules in the last three decades. And it appears that trend will continue, as evidenced by the rules and design protocol that New Zealand recently released for the races in 2021 (read the January issue in Back Issues at (www.swindsmag.com).
I am not forgetting the previous 100 years before 1983 that the book covers. It is equally interesting. The book covers all the challenges but adds another element that I didn’t expect to read about—and which turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the book: The different challengers who aspired to take the Cup away from the Americans. They included some well-known names and a short biography of some of the more famous individuals are given in the book.
The best example of this is Sir Thomas Lipton, a name I have heard for years in the sailing world, since his name has graced some well-known regattas. I learned in the book who Lipton was, how he grew up, how he made his fortune, how he became known, the origin of Lipton Tea and other unusual facts. He became known as the New York Yacht Club’s favorite challenger and America’s favorite loser. A substantial part of the book covers Lipton’s Cup challenges over many years.
Other challengers covered—whose pre-cup lives are told—include Sir Thomas Sopwith, an aviation pioneer (and yes—of the Sopwith Camel fame), James Ashbury, and the Earl of Dunraven—to mention just a few.
The book is a very good read and kept me up late wanting to read the next chapter. It covers the most recent race in Bermuda and the how and why Emirates New Zealand won and Oracle Team USA lost.