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.