Earlier today, Alinghi, a lean, mean sailing machine from landlocked Switzerland, won the America's Cup in a race that had spectators on the edge of their seats. The 17-man crew, led by an American and a New Zealander, crossed the finish line one second ahead of Emirates Team New Zealand, a younger, scrappier and very talented group of sailors who, in a best-of-nine series, really put up a fight. (Alinghi won 5-2.)
If you had told me a year ago I'd be blogging about the America's Cup, I would have thought the idea was nuts. I knew nothing about sailing. I barely knew the bow from the stern (I now know that the bow's the front and the stern's the back). Like most Americans, I saw sailing as elitist, not nearly as challenging or dynamic as baseball or football or basketball. I've heard people say it's about as exciting as watching grass grow.
Sailing's a beautiful, majestic sport, one that requires tremendous team effort. I can tell you this first-hand because I actually had an opportunity to go to the 32nd America's Cup, the one that ended today. Since Switzerland has no coastline, the races were held in Valencia, Spain, in the gorgeous waters of the Mediterranean.
I saw three races, and I'm hooked. In one, the lead changed half a dozen times, something I was told almost never happens. Winds shifted. Sailors scrambled. Sails blew out, sending wafts of red cloth high into the air and then into the sea.
And what I couldn't help thinking is that it's such a shame more people don't appreciate how exciting sailing can be. OK, I know one of your questions: Why isn't the America's Cup in America? Turns out the Cup is named not after this country but after the America, a boat that was from the U.S. but successfully challenged a 15-yacht British fleet in a race around the Isle of Wight, in England, in 1851. That race became the first America's Cup, the trophy was brought to New York, and it stayed in the U.S. until 1983, when sailing superstar Dennis Conner, lost it to Australia. (He won it back four years later.)
And speaking of Dennis Conner that was a race people watched. The 1983 race was in Newport, the 1987 race in the waters off Freemantle, in Western Australia, and popular American TV shows broadcast from there. Conner and Ted Turner (a.k.a. Captain Courageous) were sailing superstars in the 1980s, larger-than-life, great-on-TV characters. They're men that people who knew nothing about sailing could latch onto, in much the same way people who knew nothing about golf (another once-elitist sport) became enamored of Tiger Woods.
So I've been wondering about how sailing can grab the hearts and souls of people who aren't familiar with it. One of the problems with recent Cups is that the rule that crew members be primarily of one nationality has been done away with; it's possible that had New Zealand won, that rule would have come back. That would go a long way toward bringing back individual countries` enthusiasm for the races. (Yes, it is a little hard to cheer for boats that are named after corporate sponsors.)
And a final thought: sailing has got to be made more accessible and understandable. I'm willing to help with that one: I gave a speech one night while I was in Valencia. Truth be told, Tom Whidden, president of North Sails and a tactician aboard several America's Cup boats, wrote it for me. I talked about the prismatic coefficent of New Zealand's hull; I recommended that Alinghi consider adding more roach to their mainsail. I still am not sure exactly what I said, but the crowd seemed to find it amusing...especially Russell Coutts, the kiwi who for various reasons quit the Alinghi and is considered perhaps the most famous sailor in the world.
Sailing, you see is full of politics and intrigue like everything else -- and once you know a little about it, you can see why it's hard to deep six the habit--a sailing term which means to throw overboard.
Hey, what did you expect?