Lost (and Found) Weekend

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Just two months ago in this very space, I let loose with a diatribe called "Mud Baths" about the current state of the America’s Cup. It was a vintage whine, in which I took aim at spoiled billionaires, lax sportsmanship, meddling sea lawyers, and what I felt was the decline of an event that’s fascinated me since my boyhood days, when it was easily the biggest thing going in my hometown of Newport, R.I.

It also seemed to strike a chord with readers, for of all the Editor’s Logs I’ve written over the last three years, only one--a piece composed in the aftermath of the murder of the legendary New Zealand sailor Peter Blake that launched a debate about guns on board--has generated more correspondence. It appears that even cruising sailors with little interest in yacht racing can be stirred by the extravaganza of competition and excess that is the modern America’s Cup.

I now have a confession to make: I take it all back. (Well, almost all of it.)
I'm writing this on a Sunday evening in mid-February from the Cup's media headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand, having just stepped ashore from the Hauraki Gulf after witnessing the most remarkable sailboat race I've ever seen. In a breathtaking back-and-forth contest, Switzerland's Alinghi Challenge came from behind on the final downwind leg to overtake the defending Team New Zealand boat and held on to win by a mere seven seconds after 18.5 nautical miles of epic racing.

I was hardly the only enthralled party. Under crystal-clear skies and across a sparkling sea, a spectator fleet composed of some 3,000 vessels of every size and description took in the action. A gaggle of helicopters whirred overhead, several of which were broadcasting live images to rapt television audiences across New Zealand and around the world. All who watched were treated to an international sporting match of the highest caliber.

With the victory, the Alinghi team opened up a 2-0 lead in the best-of-nine series, having won Saturday’s race in a walkover after the Kiwi boat self-destructed with numerous gear failures during a gusty scuffle, forcing the New Zealand crew to retire midway up the first leg. For the defenders, it was obviously two days of loss and disappointment, and as this issue of Cruising World went to press, the odds on the Cup returning to Europe for the first time in a century and a half seemed exceedingly high.

For the Kiwis, it may have been a lost weekend, but for me it was something entirely different. In just 48 hours I rediscovered my enthusiasm for this oftentimes bizarre event that nevertheless combines so many seemingly diverse elements: history, technology, patriotism, commerce, and, yes, raw competition.

In this 31st edition of the America’s Cup, the happy fact that the early racing was wild on Day One and close on Day Two was almost a bonus. That’s because the shoreside subplots are every bit as intriguing as what’s happening on the water. The biggest, of course, is the ongoing rivalry between the Swiss team, led by the expatriate Kiwi Russell Coutts--who is making a strong case that he’s the best Cup skipper of all time--versus the current Team New Zealand squad he was largely responsible for building and which is now led by his young protégé, Dean Barker.

Here in Auckland, the aptly nicknamed City of Sails, there's no one without a well-considered opinion on this matter. But you don't need to be a Kiwi to get caught up in this drama. All it takes is a love of sport in general and sailing in particular and a more-than-passing interest in the human condition. Next month, we'll follow up with a full analysis of the outcome of Team New Zealand's second (struggling) defense of the America's Cup.
Whatever the result, from my point of view right now, one thing's certain: For this brief moment, at least, the America's Cup is once again about sailors and sailing.
And that's a wondrous thing.