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Spain, America’s Cup

Jun 1, 2007
2007 / June 2007

This is sailing without the fun. It is sport stripped clean of the pretense that “it’s the taking part that counts.” Winning is all that matters. In the America’s Cup, so the mantra goes, there is no second place.

On a spring day in Valencia, 12 teams are making the final preparations for one of the most brutal of all team contests. By rights, we should be in Switzerland, for Alinghi, a Swiss boat, is defending the trophy. In lieu of a suitable patch of ocean — indeed, any ocean — in Switzerland, the honor of host city was put out to tender, and here we are in Spain.

At stake is the oldest trophy in world sport, an ornate silver cup — the “auld mug,” to aficionados — that has been contested since 1851. The schooner America, of the New York Yacht Club, was the first victor, beginning a 132- year winning streak for the club.

Twenty-five unsuccessful challenges were mounted by British, Canadian, Irish and Australian boats before Australia II finally wrested the trophy away from New York in 1983.

With the end of an effective monopoly, global interest in the event increased dramatically, further heightened in 1988 when “Mr. America’s Cup,” Dennis Conner, pushed the rules of the competition to the limit by defending the trophy in a speedy catamaran, Stars and Stripes. The challenging boat from New Zealand was duly “whupped,” but for the next few months the competition moved to the courts, where each side accused the other of cheating.

When the legal dust settled, a new standard of yacht — the International America’s Cup Class — was introduced and has been used for every subsequent race. The regulations allow for design innovations to the hull, which are jealously guarded against spies from other teams. Thus, as I toured Valencia’s Port America’s Cup on a recent sunny morning, many of the boats were partially concealed by tarpaulin skirts.

The costs of mounting a challenge are enormous. Putting together a team requires years of planning, courting sponsors and marketing — often long before the team’s boat is even on the drawing board. In the past, the America’s Cup was the hobby of millionaires. Today, an even higher level of funding is required. The defending champ, Alinghi, is financed by biotechnology billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli and a legion of corporate sponsors.

Faced with these daunting financial hurdles, this year Dennis Conner was unable to cobble together a competitive team, though the United States will be represented by BMW Oracle Racing, flying the colors of the Golden Gate Yacht Club. China has entered a boat for the first time, along with South Africa, New Zealand and a clutch of European nations.

These challengers will compete in the Louis Vuitton Cup, which reaches its climax in mid-June. The winner will then go head-to-head with Alinghi in the 32nd America’s Cup, starting June 23.

As a spectator sport, the major drawback is that much of the action takes place offshore, beyond easy view. The crowds will cheer the boats out, watch the race progress on giant screens, and then greet the weary teams as they return to base.

Savvy fans will spend at least some of the intervening time in La Pepica, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite paella restaurant. While enjoying lunch on the verandah, you can watch the sails of the competing boats through binoculars. If the literary giant were still around, you can bet he’d be here, too. He loved boats, he admired bravery, he celebrated sporting prowess — all of those elements are present in the America’s Cup.

After the race, Papa would no doubt be on the quayside cheering the victors. And the losers? He wouldn’t give them a thought. After all, there is no second place.

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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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