Empty Cup


There are so many great memorable moments, and I consider myself a lucky man to have witnessed so many of them firsthand. I grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, so the fabric of the America's Cup weaves through my childhood. I used to love walking down Thames Street during a Cup summer and hearing all the French, Australian, and British accents. Even though the result was a foregone conclusion--the home-team New York Yacht Club invariably won--the event always seemed so grand and glorious. But 1983, the year the winning streak ended, was perhaps the most thrilling of them all. With a couple of friends, I was in a dinghy in Newport Harbor the night the Aussies finally broke New York's 132-year stranglehold on the trophy. We were among the first to latch onto the celebrated wing keel when syndicate chief Alan Bond ordered his radical 12-Meter, Australia II, raised from the water without the skirt normally employed to keep the design secret safe from competing syndicates. If you look at some of those famous old photos of that epic evening, there we are, front and center.

Heck, my sister even married a handsome Aussie Cup sailor!

So of course I was on hand four years later when Dennis Conner and a boatload of fellow Yanks avenged the loss in the boisterous waters off Perth, Western Australia, a victory that landed Conner on the covers of Time and Sports Illustrated. That night, the sportsmanlike Aussies threw a party that couldn't have been bigger if they'd defended the prize. In 2000, I'd landed a gig with The New York Times in Auckland, New Zealand, to cover the Kiwis' successful and stirring defense of the Auld Mug, a wonderful story that galvanized the tiny sailing-crazed nation. And I was back three years later when New Zealand hero-turned-traitor Russell Coutts led the Alinghi team from Switzerland--Switzerland!--to a devastating victory against his clearly overmatched countrymen. Though the outcome was lopsided, the drama and emotion were intense and riveting.

All of which is to say that for many years, I've lived and breathed the America's Cup. And that makes it all the more devastating to admit my feelings about the next running of the event, in Valencia, Spain, in 2007: I couldn't possibly care less.

Of the 12 syndicates competing for the next Cup, four have a prayer of actually winning the thing. The two real favorites--the defender, Alinghi, bankrolled by Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli; and the top challenger, Oracle BMW, the sole U.S. representative, backed by software tycoon Larry Ellison--will have spent upward of $300 million before the first race is staged a little less than two years from now. Three. Hundred. Million. Dollars. Yes, the America's Cup has always been about money. But only recently has the money become so obscene.

It'd be one thing if the Rich Boys had a little flair, some of the gumption of legendary Cup loser Sir Thomas Lipton or the controversy of Aussie rogue Alan Bond. But by all accounts, Bertarelli and Ellison are two, well, loathsome individuals. Want proof? Late in the game, they conspired to change the rules to suit their needs to ensure that Coutts, one of our era's most accomplished Cup sailors, doesn't sail in the next event.

And for the first time in three decades, good old Dennis Conner will sit this one out; he's been priced out of the competition. The New York Yacht Club? Nowhere in sight. The Aussies? Not this time, mate. The Brits are taking a pass, even on the heels of back-to-back successful Olympiads and the wondrous exploits of a wee lass named Ellen MacArthur. For them all, it's the same old refrain: No cash, no splash.

Don't get me started on Valencia, which was chosen over several windier, classier possible venues. Or the silly "Acts," which are supposed to generate interest in the interminable lead-up to the Cup itself but instead have been monumental bores. Or the fact that there are precious few Americans on Ellison's Kiwi-studded "American" team.

Which is sad, because the America's Cup, to me, used to be pretty cool. All in all, I reckon the Swiss should've stuck to cheese.