At the Pinnacle of Sailing

April 25, 2012 § 10 Comments


Or, who’s bringing the beer and PB&Js to the AC34?

I’m interested in the America’s Cup in the same way that I am interested in a mission to Mars: it seems pretty cool. I’m aware that it’s happening, and if I happen upon an attractive headline, I’ll scan the article. Like many, I’m intrigued by the science and technology and I’m impressed by the speeds that the new boats are achieving.

Sure, there might be some eventual technology trickle down, and that’s something to look forward to. But frankly, the opportunity to buy something pales in comparison with the opportunity to experience something, and like nearly everyone else on this planet, I face the reality that I won’t experience anything like it. Ever.

Yes, the Cup is rich with lore on a mythical scale. A decades-long string of U.S. wins until 1983 came to symbolize America’s rise to power. History books tell us that its people and personalities are larger than life; some of the races epitomize the battle for global dominance; and its backstories offer glimpses into how politics and money really work.

However, claims of its vast public relations reach and influence are unfounded.

Statistically, today’s AC sailors touch and inspire fewer folks than any other sporting pinnacle players, including the stars in Cricket and spelunking. The actual spectacle isn’t suited to spectating, so it won’t go viral, much less receive much media attention, except in “and now for something completely different” newsreels, and by a small group of fervent writers and readers of all things sailing. When the break-away animation is more popular than the actual video footage, you know you have a problem. And the Cup itself is perhaps the most out of reach amateur prize in all of sport: only two dozen humans among 6.5 billion on this planet have the means to seek it. These are the same folks who can pay for private space flight, bless ‘em.

Frankly, I don’t lose much sleep over this, because in fact, sailing is well within reach for most Americans. And most sailors know that sailing isn’t a spectator sport like NASCAR. It’s time spent with friends.

For example, when you look out over the nearshore waters of almost any major U.S. City and see sails, most of them are being trimmed by someone of modest means. More than half of people sailing are aboard boats that are part of a shared fleet; small craft purchased or donated as training vessels for rides among friends, lessons for all, and that are usually cared for by enthusiastic volunteers. Most of the rest of the boats you see are over 20 years old, in the hands of a 3rd or 4th loving owner and his or her friends.

Most American sailors pay very modest fees for these privileges. Sailboat owners find the boat that they can afford (most spend far less on sailing than on cable TV) and their friends bring beer and PB&Js in return for some time on the water.

This, I would propose, is both the bedrock and the pinnacle of the sport. Without the folks who sail for the sake of sailing, nobody, AC competitors included, would have access to open water; no kid would be dreaming up new sailing adventures or new ways to sail faster, and no historian would have ever made the claim that a game played by a few people could matter on a global scale.

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§ 10 Responses to At the Pinnacle of Sailing

  • Michael Togneri says:

    A thoughtful, piercingly accurate article. I too love the AC & the VOR, but my real joy is simply fooling around in boats, swimming off the yacht club dock, babbling on to my yachtie friends & trying to make our little corner of the world even closer to paradise. Well spoken.

  • Pierre says:

    “And the Cup itself is perhaps the most out of reach amateur prize in all of sport: only two dozen humans among 6.5 billion on this planet have the means to seek it.”….

    Do you know how many kids play football (soccer, as you Americans call it) in Europe? Dozens of millions. Do you know how many teams have the means to be European champions? Not more than ten and all of them, what a coincidence, are owned by super millionaires. The ANNUAL budget of a top European team is three times the budget of an entire AC campaign.

    It’s exactly the same situation. Both competitions are meant to be the pinnacle in their sports and by definition only the best, and richest, will be there. Even in a sport that is, BY FAR, the most popular in Europe, there is a natural food chain with a only a handful of people at the very top!!

    • ndhayes says:

      Thanks, Pierre. I generally agree and appreciate your comment and perspective, but should point out that in this case I am referring to the money required, not the skills. Would you say that money is easier to amass in the amounts required than the skills?

      • Pierre says:

        I’m also referring to the money required. There are hundreds if not thousands of soccer club throughout Europe but just a handful of them have the means (budget) to be European champions.

        What I want to say is that even in the continent’s or even the world’s most popular sport it takes hundreds of million of euros, PER YEAR, to be European champion. Most of these elite clubs, if not all of them, are owned by extremely wealthy people.

        As you see, it’s not something solely limited to sailing. It’s normal that in every sport there is an event or competition that is considered the summit, the top. This can become a very attractive ego trip for millionaires and billionaires. Larry Ellison dreams of the America’s Cup while Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea, dreams of the European Champions League.

        If you now ask me whether this is healthy or not for the sport, any sport, I can’t answer. Then the question should be whether there should be any professional sport.

    • Indio says:

      There is one major difference: ACEA/ACRM will never ever be in a position to attract the thousands of ordinary joe-publics who can cruise into any soccer stadium, into watching AC, despite their attempts with the WSL45 programme.

      Soccer is popular because it’s cheap to get into, period. It’s questionable whether the AC can be claimed to be the “pinnacle” of sailing when the over-riding qualification for getting into it is $$$ – which of course would qualify only the 12 or so individuals from the 6.5 billion quoted in the article.

      The AC needs to be appreciated for what it is, without some people trying to ram it down people’s throats as something it can never ever be.

  • Skip says:

    Great perspective Nick!

  • Liz says:

    Nick, I completely disagree but 2 months ago, I completely agreed with you! What happened in between? I took a group of junior sailors on a tour of Oracle Racing. Sure, most will never sail in the America’s Cup but maybe we’re missing the boat, here…literally. My daughter, a lukewarm junior sailor (she likes it but prefers horses) never got really excited about sailing until she got on board my brother in law’s Windrider…maybe we need to really look at the multihull as an entry boat for some. A hobie fleet or a Windrider is very accessible option. Remember, boating appeals to people in different ways. If a multihull doesn’t appeal to your sense of sailing, that’s okay, but it may be just the draw for others. (and that is coming from a Shields racer and a new Windrider owner!)

    • ndhayes says:

      Liz, I’m not sure what we disagree on.

      Having brought such experiences to kids, you are the bedrock (and the pinnacle) to which I refer. Thanks for what you’re doing.

      And to be clear, I love multihull sailing. I haven’t criticized it or the cup in my post.

  • M.A.M. says:

    Thank you, I have been inspired by your words and efforts to live out a dream of mine to sail. I will buy your book.


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