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America's Cup: the good, bad and ugly

News flash: BMW announced it is withdrawing from its partnership with Oracle Racing because it accomplished its purpose by winning the 33rd America's Cup last year in Valencia, Spain.

The next Cup regatta is to be staged on San Francisco Bay.

News flash: Oracle Racing - representing the San Francisco Yacht Club - will defend the Cup in, you guessed it, San Francisco.

The real issue will be which law firms engage in the legal cases that might crop up. Looking at the past, it seems that litigation has as much influence on the outcome of the Cup as the racing. Who cares? I certainly don't anymore. I did at one time. The drama was riveting, especially if you understood what was going on, but not now - at least not yet.

Now for a brief history of the Auld Mug.

In 1850, John Cox Stevens, the first commodore of the New York Yacht Club, formed a six-man syndicate that ordered the construction of a 101-foot schooner named America, which was to sail to England to challenge the fastest yachts of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Upon arrival in Cowes, the Americans skirmished informally and had their schooner in good racing trim. On grounds of ownership rules, they were barred from racing, so Stevens wagered the princely sum of $50,000 to sweeten the pot, but the Brits, who knew about America's speed, refused. To avoid embarrassment, they offered a race around the Isle of Wight for an off-the-shelf, bottomless sterling silver cup known as the 100-Guinea Cup. On Aug. 22, 1851, America entered the contest against 14 British boats, starting last but finishing first by eight minutes.

As the story goes, Queen Victoria watched the end of the race. "What yacht is that?" she asked her naval attaché as America finished.

"Your Majesty, it is the schooner America."

"Who is second?" the Queen asked.

"Ah, Madam, there is no second."

The attempt to win money was a flop, and America sailed back to the States. Stevens and his syndicate eventually gave the trophy, which was to become the America's Cup, to the New York Yacht Club with a Deed of Gift specifying that it be held in trust as a perpetual challenge trophy to promote friendly competition among nations. The original idea was that challengers would come in boats with sails and hulls designed, built and crewed from the challenging country and sailed to the United States on their own bottoms. This has kind of gone by the board, though the defender has always had the power to sort of skew the rules in its favor.

The original terms were less than sporting. The venue where the Cup was decided was one where light airs were the rule - the East Coast of the United States. When there was more than one challenger, they had to compete to become the final challenger in the weather of the British Isles, which I can say from experience is much rougher than that of the Eastern Seaboard.

Challengers such as Sir Thomas Lipton (in his five unsuccessful challenges from 1899 through 1930) had to sail boats that were designed to compete in rough conditions and then sail across the Atlantic to compete in light air. By the way, Lipton was such a good sport during his losing attempts as a challenger that he helped popularize Lipton tea in the United States. (You might want to read "Keelhauled: Unsportsmanlike Conduct and the America's Cup," by Douglas Riggs.)

From 1958 through 1987, 12 Meters raced for the Cup. Wealthy individuals would finance campaigns and rent a "cottage" in Newport, R.I. - where the amateur sailors trained - to manage their programs. There was a grace to the competition, not only because of the gentlemanly nature of the race but also because of the beauty of the 12 Meters.

The 12 Meter rules eventually became so well understood and the boats so similar that designers and sailmakers had to be creative to eke out every knot possible to gain an edge. The racing was close and exciting.

All went reasonably well until 1983, when Dennis Conner lost the Cup to Australia II and its radical winged keel, ending the New York Yacht Club's 132-year winning streak. Those keels became very popular for racers, as they reduce drag, but are a poor choice for cruisers who like to gunkhole. Those wings won't make it any easier to heel the boat after running aground. Have I ever run aground? Never! And if you believe that ...

Conner, this time representing the San Diego Yacht Club, won back the Cup in 1987 in Fremantle, Australia. Indeed, the racing was exciting. Sails tore and needed replacing. The skill and athleticism of the crews was impressive.

In 1988, the grace of a gentleman's race went by the board when Conner and the San Diego Yacht Club defended the Cup against a surprise Deed of Gift challenge by Michael Fay from New Zealand, who entered a humongous monohull with a 90-foot waterline. Responding to a legal challenge by the defenders, the New York State Supreme Court ruled the challenge legitimate.

Conner defended with a catamaran flying a wing sail. It was no contest. Conner won both races, but the Cup returned to New York's courts. Fay argued that the multihull vs. monohull race was unfair and won, at least initially. The decision was reversed on appeal. Conner's syndicate successfully argued that the Deed of Gift did not bar a multihull. Conner and the SDYC retained the Cup, which set the stage for a multichallenger event in 1992.

I started to lose interest in the race after that. It seemed to have lost any semblance of sportsmanship, with an estimated $64 million spent by Bill Koch on his America3 syndicate, which defended the Cup successfully against Il Moro di Venezia, the team of the late Italian billionaire Raul Giardini, who is said to have spent $110 million on his challenge.

In 1995, again in San Diego, Team New Zealand, with Russell Coutts at the helm, challenged for the 29th America's Cup. With their superior boat Black Magic, the Kiwis swept the finals against Conner. In 2000, in Auckland, Team New Zealand successfully defended against the Italian Prada syndicate in the 30th America's Cup. The Swiss Alinghi syndicate unseated the Kiwis in the 31st Cup, brought the Cup back to Europe after 156 years, and successfully defended in the 32nd edition, which was sailed in Valencia in 2007. After that, the regatta returned to the courts.

Alinghi was found to have accepted a challenge from a syndicate representing a sham yacht club, and BMW Oracle, the team of U.S. software billionaire Larry Ellison, was named challenger of record. It just got uglier from there. After two years of litigation, Ellison won back the Cup in a Deed of Gift challenge sailed in enormous multihulls, thus returning the Cup to the States.

Cup defenses and challenges used to be mounted in glorified daysailers designed and built in the country where the syndicates are based. The sailors also had to be from that country, and the winners and losers were decided on the water. That has changed, with rock-star sailors and designers switching "nationalities" the way you and I might change shoes, not to mention the possibility of sailing being replaced by litigation.

At the moment, I couldn't care less about the Cup. But who knows what the next regatta will bring? America's Cup 34 will be sailed in 2013 on 72-foot catamarans with wing sails, supposedly to make the event more attractive. But they'll have to do a great job to tickle my interest.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.