Newport's Cup Date

Nearly 30 years after its departure, America’s Cup racing made a spectacular return to its long-time Rhode Island home.

America's Cup World Series 2012

Once contested in stately monohulls and one-on-one match races, the "new" America's Cup employs wing-sail catamarans and, in the World Series exhibition regattas, fleet races among all the teams that adds a thrilling spectacle to the proceedings.Onne Van Der Wal

Perched precariously as I was on the extreme aft edge of the trampoline on an America's Cup 45 all-carbon catamaran—the chin strap to my helmet snugly secured and the fixed-wing mainsail towering some 70 feet overhead—skipper Russell Coutts and his four-man Oracle Team USA crew had my full attention as we closed on the windward mark at a swift 12 knots. As the guest crewman on the Oracle AC 45 boat in a practice race with France's Team Energy prior to the official start of the America's Cup World Series off Newport, Rhode Island, last June 23 through July 1, my job was simple: Hang on and stay the hell out of the way.

Both were easier said than done, particularly in the scant moments when we rounded the mark, the crew unfurled the big downwind gennaker, and our boat speed instantly leaped by a third to over 18 knots. In a rush of wind screeching in the rigging and spray flying off the leeward hull (its windward counterpart was well airborne), we went screaming down the East Passage of Narragansett Bay while scores of shore-side spectators waved and cheered from their vantage point in Fort Adams State Park, at the entrance to Newport Harbor (see “Shoreline,” page 26 of our September 2012 issue).

As a Newport native and a career sailing writer, I had my own little history with the Cup. I'd followed it as a kid. My sister married a Cup racer from Australia. On the day the Aussies won it in 1983, from a pal's dinghy I was one of the first to lay hands on Australia II's legendary wing keel when it was raised from the water after a summer of being kept literally shrouded in secrecy. I'd traveled to Australia, Southern California, and New Zealand to cover subsequent Cup regattas. And as a stodgy traditionalist, when Oracle software mogul Larry Ellison won it in 2010 and announced plans that the next defense, in San Francisco in 2013, would be contested in giant 72-foot winged catamarans, few long-time Cup chroniclers and followers were more cynical than me.

But flying downwind seated just aft of Oracle Racing’s syndicate leader, Coutts—the New Zealander who’s one of the most accomplished Cup racers of all time, winning it outright as skipper three times and a fourth time while serving as CEO of Oracle’s team—I had to admit, the AC 45s were pretty damn cool.

And in a lull in the action after the practice race, Coutts was eloquent in describing his vision for the next event. “Times have changed, and we need to introduce the sport to a whole new generation and audience,” he said. “And to do that, we have to have the fastest, most challenging, technologically advanced boats ever built for the America’s Cup. The old guard, including myself, has had a stranglehold on the Cup for years. That stranglehold is being broken for good.”

Indeed, the last time Cup racing was conducted off Newport, it was done so in stately 12-Meter monohulls that were well-suited to one-on-one match racing but are beastly, deep-drafted, loaded-up lead mines compared to the skittish water bugs that are the AC 45s. And previous Cup regattas were certainly off Newport: a good 8 miles to sea on Rhode Island Sound, which made it visible only to those who ventured offshore in spectator boats.

As Coutts was quick to note, those days are over. The new AC 45s were conceived as one-design training boats for the next Cup in California to give crews a chance to become familiar with the intricacies of wing sails before stepping up to the powerful 72-foot cats; the so-called America’s Cup World Series was organized so teams could hone their skills in competition while introducing the “new” Cup concept to the global masses.

Newport was the sixth and final venue for the 2011-2012 circuit, following stops in Portugal, England, Italy, and San Diego. And like the other locales, the racecourse in Newport was set up close to shore with fixed grandstands; an adjacent “village” with food courts, bars, retail outlets, and exhibitions, many of them within the walls of historic Fort Adams; and plenty of space along the waterfront for families and fans to arrange a picnic or lawn chairs to take in the action.

The idea was to create, as closely as possible, a stadium-like experience. And while plenty of folks took to the water as part of a huge spectator fleet, most of Narragansett Bay off the fort was cordoned off for the racing. The best views truly were from terra firma.

Before San Francisco was named as the official host of the 2013 America’s Cup, Newport was supposedly one of the finalists for the honor. When the official announcement came, a lot of Newporters felt that they’d been used as leverage in the negotiations, a mere bargaining chip. So nobody knew quite what to expect when the town was awarded one of the World Series events, which at first seemed like a rather lame consolation prize. Still, hopes were high, but as far as spectators were concerned, there was no way of knowing that if they “built it,” they would come.

Boy oh, boy, did they.

There was no question that organizers got extremely lucky with the weather, which for the entire week was sensational, with consistently sunny skies, temperatures in the mid-80s F, and Newport’s classic “smoky sou’wester” sea breeze kicking in at a glorious 12 to 14 knots precisely on time for racing each afternoon. The one and only drenching thunderstorm came exactly one hour after the last race on July 1, the final day of competition, which had been broadcast live across the nation on NBC, the first time the Cup had appeared on network television in eons. Somebody had clearly struck a deal with the devil.

Before that, during four days of racing, by ferry, car, bike, and foot some tens of thousands of folks descended on Fort Adams to take in the show—the crowd numbered over 14,000 on June 30, with nearly 500 spectator boats afloat—and few were disappointed. Yes, there was most certainly a circus atmosphere to the proceedings. Sponsor signage was everywhere. Rock music blasted on the “dock outs” for each boat as they entered the racecourse for introductions. Skydivers from the “Red Bull Air Force” flew through the sky. And to be perfectly honest, despite the broadcast commentary on VHF-radio and shoreline speakers, countless viewers had little, if any, clue as to what was transpiring before them.

It didn’t matter. It was a happening. The idea was to see and be seen. For a while there, sailing was the coolest sport on the planet. And for the real sailors taking it all in, cruisers and racers, that was pretty neat.

When all was said and done, the two Oracle boats—one driven by Coutts, the other by Aussie James Spithill—were the big winners; the former won the Newport Match Racing Championship, and the latter, with second-place finishes in the match racing and fleet racing, was named the overall 2011-2012 season winner. By virtue of those performances, it’s clear that Oracle Racing is the clear favorite to defend the Auld Mug when the actual America’s Cup regatta gets under way on San Francisco Bay in September 2013.

But everyone came away from Newport with favorite memories. Mine was sailing the AC 45 with Coutts, but it didn’t take place during the practice race. Just before it, the famous Cup skipper drove his 45-footer at nearly 20 knots on a screaming reach with a hull flying through a fleet of more than 100 junior sailors, who were bobbing between their own races on tiny Optimist dinghies during a regatta held in conjunction with the World Series.

The looks and grins on the faces of Coutts and his pro sailing mates, as well as those splashed across the faces of those little kids, were priceless. All I could think was, those kids will remember that for the rest of their lives.

For that matter, so will I.

Herb McCormick is CW's senior editor.

Read the 2013 America's Cup Primer here.

View photos of the 2012 America's Cup World Series here.