Celebrating the History of the America’s Cup
Published on October 22nd, 2016
by G. Bruce Knecht
The old and new of the America’s Cup–the classic beauties of the 1800s and the super-charged foiling machines of today–were both feted at the New York Yacht Club on Friday night (Oct 21) when the America’s Cup Hall of Fame inducted two new members: Ernesto Bertarelli and the 4th Earl of Dunraven.
Bertarelli overcame widespread skepticism about a team from landlocked Switzerland to win the Cup in 2003, which allowed him to take the prize to Europe for the first time. “I don’t think you realize how emotional it is for me to see my family here in the model room, the place where the dream began,” Bertarelli said. It was, he explained, a childhood visit to the model room, the America’s Cup’s spiritual home, that inspired his quest for sailing’s greatest prize.
Lord Dunraven (1841-1926) never won the Cup. An Irish aristocrat, he led an enviable life that mixed actual work–he was a journalist and a politician–with big game hunting and racehorse ownership. He also was an accomplished yacht captain and helmsman who led two campaigns for the Cup.
Dunraven’s second challenge, which took place in 1895, was controversial, starting when he accused the crew of Defender, which represented the New York Yacht Club, of adding illegal ballast. Dunraven did not get anywhere with his protest and he lost the first race, but appeared to have won the second. However, after the race was completed, Dunraven’s result was disqualified because his yacht, Valkyrie III, had collided with Defender just prior to the start of the race and Valkyrie III was judged to have been at fault.
Dunraven, who blamed the incident on the club’s inadequate management of the spectator fleet, had not realized that his opponent had filed a protest. Outraged by the race committee’s decision, he withdrew from the competition. In the aftermath, the bitterness only escalated. Dunraven publicly declared that he had been cheated, and the club withdrew his honorary membership.
But he clearly had produced a very competitive yacht, and yachting historians believe he moved yacht design to a new level, leading the way to the legendary series of challenges sponsored by Sir Thomas Lipton. As a result, Dunraven has been promoted for the Hall of Fame by some members of its selection committee for at least a decade. Others objected, contending that his 121-year-old dispute with the New York Yacht Club made him too “controversial.” The America’s Hall of Fame is sponsored by the Herreshoff Marine Museum, which has close ties to the club.
On Friday, a dozen of Lord Dunraven’s descendants, three generations of modern-day aristocrats with varying degrees of knowledge about their ancestor’s America’s Cup history, were in the model room. The Countess of Dunraven, who is, because of a lack of male heirs, the last person who will hold the Dunraven honorific, accepted the award.
Rules disputes have played an all-too prominent role in the America’s Cup throughout its 165-year history, and that includes the years when the trophy belonged to Ernesto Bertarelli. He defeated Team New Zealand to win in 2003 and he successfully defended in 2007, but the lead-up to the 2010 regatta was dominated by personal acrimony and prolonged litigation between Bertarelli and Larry Ellison. When the racing finally began, Ellison’s Oracle Team USA prevailed.
Even on Friday, when Bertarelli addressed the 200 people who attended the induction ceremony, he made a point of not speaking about Ellison by name.
“I think my successor has brought a great deal to the Cup–but I also think it’s time for a new owner,” Bertarelli said, a comment that drew enthusiastic applause. Earlier in the evening, when Bertarelli and I sat down in the model room to speak privately, he said he hopes the British team led by Sir Ben Ainslie wins the next competition. “It would give the Americans a chance to go back to England and win it again.”
Bertarelli went on to say that he is pleased that the next regatta, which will take place in Bermuda in June, will be with hydro-foiling multihulls, but he said Bermuda doesn’t have enough hotel rooms for spectators. He also criticized Ellison for putting too much emphasis on attracting television audiences rather than live ones. “Sailing is a sport that requires people to come to the stadium,” Bertarelli said. “The current owner is trying to do it on television, but television is tough to do” because weather conditions cannot be made to comport to television schedules.
When I asked Bertarelli if there was any chance that he might someday mount another Cup campaign, he demurred. “It was an incredible human adventure,” he said. “We had an amazing run and we even had a good time in defeat. I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.” But then, as he gazed across the vast room that contains fully rigged models of every yacht that has sailed in the America’s Cup, he recalibrated, at least a bit, saying, “One should never say never.”
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G. Bruce Knecht is the author of several books, including THE COMEBACK: How Larry Ellison’s Team Won the America’s Cup.