Team USA rounding the first mark against Team New Zealand during Race 4 of the 34th America's Cup in San Francisco

Formula One on Water

Once a leisurely gentleman’s competition,
America’s Cup has evolved into a sprint for
money, fame and speed

In 1851, the New York Yacht Club’s keel schooner America sailed past the Royal Yacht in the rough waters surrounding the Isle of Wight, securing a victory so significant that the Cup of One Hundred Sovereigns was renamed in its favor. Constructed by yacht-builder George Steers, the progressively designed America—with its stately masts and curved lines—was considered a “rakish, piratical-looking craft,” and a “violation of the old, established ideas of naval architecture,” as one London Illustrated News journalist put it at the time.

Now, 164 years and 34 races later, the world’s second-oldest sporting event is undergoing another bout of innovation-fueled controversy.
Historic black-and-white photo of sailors hanging from a monohull yacht during the 1962 America's Cup
The only 12-meter-class yacht designed by Philip Rhodes, the Weatherly—a President Kennedy favorite—won the 1962 America’s Cup in Newport, Rhode Island

Sailing was once a gentleman’s sport populated by salty older seafarers, celebrated more for their age and experience than youth and vigor. But the recent shift from traditional monohull yachts to lightning-fast multihull boats has changed all that. The AC72, a radical wing sail catamaran, became the standard for 2013 after the governing set of rules, known as the Deed of Gift, was rewritten in 2010 and allowed teams to seek faster and sleeker yachts. “Everything changed with the last America’s Cup in San Francisco [in 2013],” says America’s Cup’s Peter Rusch. “We went from big one-hull boats, used from 1992 to 2007, to [hydrofoil] boats with multiple hulls that literally lift out of the water. The speed of the boats tripled,” from 12 to more than 40 knots. That speed has necessitated younger, fitter crews, who are called upon to tend a jib and maneuver Kevlar sails, halyards and sheets on a very narrow boat traveling twice the speed of the wind.

All that speed also makes for better television—and a new look. “The whole aesthetic changed,” says Rusch. “The event got younger—the athletes, the sailors—and that attracted a younger audience and partners like Red Bull.” Fifty years ago, yachts were backed by wealthy families, private businesses and the sailors themselves. Now, they’re powered by the kinds of major sponsors more commonly seen in an NFL stadium.
The massive Team USA AC72 catamaran skippered by James Spithill, the youngest skipper to win the America's Cup
The AC72, a radical wing sail catamaran, revolutionized the sport with its twin hulls, massive sails and ability to reach speeds of 55 mph

Not everyone is a fan, and it would be unfair to say they are all of the new generation. As the French yachtsman Loïck Peyron, who raced in the 2010 America’s Cup on the Alinghi 5 multihull and is the current holder of the Jules Verne Trophy (a competition based on speed), recently told Yacht Racing Forum he “would personally prefer bigger boats, where the choreography and other unique skills are really important.” Andrew Schmidt, a veteran of the 2012 Volvo Ocean Race, among others, also has his doubts. “They’re trying to turn America’s Cup into Formula One on water,” he says. “It’s getting younger, but it’s still…not approachable. Formula One can make a connection to kids in St. Louis and Chicago because every American teenager drives a car. But very few people have boats or know how to sail.”

Maybe so, but the shift appears to be here to stay. “Sailing is a fairly conservative sport,” says Rusch. “But after the race in 2013, it was clear that we were not going back to monohulls. The guys have adapted well, and that race between Team Oracle USA and Team Emirates New Zealand was the closest Cup ever. It’s a more exciting race.”
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CARY RANDOLPH FULLER is the former senior editor of RL Magazine and the founder of the fitness and lifestyle website Track&Feel. She lives in St. Louis.
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT GALBRAITH
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORGE SILK
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY EZRA SHAW