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The Race to Recover the Cup : Loss of the America's Cup to Australia in 1983 Was the 'Sputnik of Yachting,' a High-Tech Embarrassment That Galvanized U.S. Industry Into Action. This Year, American Teams--With Lots of Corporate Help--Aren't Leaving Anything to Chance.

August 31, 1986|DAVID DEVOSS | David DeVoss is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer

Some people believe the America's Cup race is an athletic contest. Nothing could be further from the truth. Competitive yachting's premier event has little to do with professional sport as we know it. It does not pretend to build character or embody the national psyche. Neither does it strive for excitement by tinkering with the rules. In a contest between yacht clubs, gentlemanly formality is more important than genuine sportsmanship. "The America's Cup is the game of life," says Dennis Conner, 43, probably the best 12-meter racer in America. "The cup is not necessarily won by the best sailor but by the organization that combines good leadership and logistics with a sound marketing strategy."

Tom Blackaller, the 46-year-old Berkeley mechanical engineer-cum-sailmaker who triannually challenges Conner for the honor of representing the United States in the race, is even more succinct: "Sailing is a cross between war and business. If you try to compete under the assumption this is a sport, you'll never know what hit you."

Conceived at the apex of the Industrial Revolution by men of lineage and substance, the America's Cup is a marriage of wealth and technology. Its heroes rarely come from behind the wheel of a boat. Yachting's pantheon is filled with men such as Harold Vanderbilt, J. Pierpont Morgan and tea merchant Sir Thomas Lipton--millionaires all, who, like the Medici of Renaissance Florence, subsidized the brightest engineers of their day in a search for boats with speed.

The elusive Baron Marcel Bich (father of the Bic ballpoint), Fiat's Gianni Agnelli and the Aga Khan continue the quest. When Western Australia's Alan Bond won the Cup in 1983 with his yacht, Australia II, he, too, entered capitalism's most exclusive club. "The America's Cup is where very successful men come to be with other very successful men," Bond says. "And where men who would like to be successful gather on the periphery."

The America's Cup began in 1851 when British industrialists invited their American cousins to a boat race around the Isle of Wight. The prize was a silver ewer of 134 ounces, worth 100 guineas. New York businessman John Cox Stevens accepted the challenge. His yacht, America, was more than a match for the British. As it sped toward victory, Queen Victoria, aboard the royal steam yacht Victoria and Albert anchored alongside the last leg of the course, peered into the mist and asked, "Who is second?" The answer set the tone for future challenges: "Ah, Your Majesty," a courtier responded, "there is no second."

For the next 132 years, American yachtsmen made a habit of being first. Through 24 consecutive defenses of the cup, they emerged triumphant. But in September, 1983, the American yacht Liberty was beaten four races to three by challenger Australia II. The baroque ewer's new home would be Perth, Australia; the longest winning streak in the history of organized sport was over.

Loss of the America's Cup meant almost nothing at all to most Americans. Football season had started, and the World Series was two weeks off. But in corporate board rooms across the land, alarums began to clang. America had not lost a boat race; it had been out-high-teched by rubes from the Antipode: men who incessantly squawked "G'day, mate," called every woman Sheila and adopted as their national symbol a lowly marsupial.

Not since Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address had the military-industrial complex been so steamed. The Naval Ship Research and Development Center in Bethesda, Md., wanted to know why Liberty had lost. In December, 1983, it summoned Nils Salvesen, a marine hydrodynamicist who could predict from a warship's blueprints its future performance at sea. "My presentation lasted an hour, but the conclusion was obvious," Salvesen remembers. "Our naval architects failed to utilize technology already available." Heiner Meldner, a Lawrence Livermore Laboratory weapons specialist who devised a program by which sails could be analyzed by computer, put the loss in its true perspective. Warned Meldner: "Australia II is the Sputnik of yachting."

Three years ago, the America's Cup was a bauble enshrined in the fusty New York Yacht Club, seen only by the rich and famous. Today, it is the focus of a high-stakes technological race. In 1983 only seven syndicates entered the competition. Next month, 14 will challenge the Royal Perth Yacht Club's new Australia III. By the end of the race, $170 million will have been spent in pursuit of the cup. The combined budgets of the six American syndicates alone total $61.7 million.

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