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Power to the people

Charlie Barr was winning the America's Cup with Columbia 111 years ago in this photograph, racing against a British "wholesale grocer" who'd come up the hard way to become Sir Thomas Lipton, one of the country's wealthiest men.

Lipton's 128-footer, Shamrock, was designed by William Fife for the Royal Ulster Yacht Club. Columbia, a 131-footer designed by Nathanael Herreshoff for the defending New York Yacht Club, was skippered by the soon-to-be-legendary Barr, who would go on to win three consecutive Cup regattas.

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The image got me thinking about the recent Cup racing off Valencia, Spain. Riding high off the water on the windward hull, James Spithill steered BMW Oracle Racing's revolutionary wing-sail trimaran across the finish line on Valentine's Day to win the 33rd running of the America's Cup. BOR needed just two races in the best-of-three series to soundly defeat the defending Swiss syndicate, Alinghi, and its catamaran, becoming the first U.S. team to win the coveted trophy since 1992, when America3 defeated Il Moro de Venezia in racing off San Diego.

The 90-foot (LWL) multihulls in the 2010 regatta are capable of sailing three times the speed of the wind. Both are models of high technology, from BOR's articulating wing sail to the hull designs and space-age materials used to put the boats together. However, there's one thing that's been disappearing from the competition through the decades: the human element.

This year there were a combined 24 sailors on the two boats. I count at least 50 on the two yachts here. Motorized winches and hydraulics - allowed for the first time in Cup racing - eliminated the grinder positions on board. "It's not the same without the big guys in there," said one displaced competitor. "Engines don't tell jokes. They can't have a beer with you at the end of the day."

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.