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The Golden Age of America's Cup

Stephen Brown

Columbia and Shamrock II in the 1901 America's Cup race    The oldest actively contested trophy in sport, the America’s Cup, is coming to Palm Beach for the Flagler Museum’s latest exhibition, “Capturing the Cup: Yacht Racing During the Gilded Age,” from October 16 through January 6. The exhibit examines the heritage of the America’s Cup, particularly through the lens of the Gilded Age, an era largely recognized as the Golden Age of the sport.   
   The America’s Cup is a much different beast today than in the days of gaff-rigged schooners and fast-running sloops that used to battle for the trophy. Modern-day multihulls (AC72 catamarans) with monstrous and incredibly stiff carbon fiber wing-sails now hit speeds—40 knots!—previously thought unfathomable under sail. Some of these vessels literally leave the water on hydro-foils and fly. Though leaps and bounds beyond the yachts of old, these high tech rigs of today continue the heritage forged by America’s Cup and the great sailing vessels of the past. Just as America’s (the trophy’s namesake) bombastic ‘backward’ design of the 1850s turned the world of sailing on its ear, each America’s Cup race leads to a slew of new technological breakthroughs and innovations, that, once harnessed in pursuit of the world’s oldest trophy in sport,America's Cup replica - William I. Koch Collection begin to trickle down to the boating world as a whole—though the catamaran is nothing new, the South Pacific was explored by seafaring Polynesians some 3,000 years ago aboard outriggers, spanning huge swaths of ocean before finding land.

   “Capturing the Cup” is an excellent introduction into what is one of the most interesting international sporting events around. The exhibition looks into the cup’s storied past, focusing on the Gilded Age era, coincidently a time when the America’s Cup found a new footing as “The Gamest Loser in the World of Sports,”  thanks to Sir Thomas Lipton (of the tea fame), who tried time and time again to capture the cup for Britain. Challenging American champions five times between 1899 and 1930, Lipton came up short each and every challenge. But in doing so, a heated competition for the cup was renewed, leading to the birth of new technologies in the world of yachting. It also incited interest in sailing for the public at large, resulting in a new generation of recreational boaters as well as the growth of sailing and yacht clubs throughout the country,Sir Thomas Lipton - The FLagler Museum - America's Cup a development not lost on the growing population of Florida and its railroad tycoon, Henry Flagler.

   Never one to shy away from dropping a few bones in the pursuit of leisure, Flagler owned a number of sailing and steam yachts. Though he never raced in an America's Cup regatta, Flagler owned the 1876 America's Cup defender Columbia. “Capturing the Cup” depicts the Golden Age of the America’s Cup with a slew of artifacts from the ships and races, maritime art, as well as  some of the most important yacht racing trophies, including a rare replica of the America’s Cup itself. This exhibit not only tells the story of the race, but the characters behind the regattas, trophies and ships, many of whom are quite colorful and historically significant in their own right.

   “Capturing the Cup: Yacht Racing During the Gilded Age” will be on display October 16, 2012 through January 6, 2013.

  • On November 10, the Flagler Museum will host a special children’s exhibit activity, where fourth- through eighth-grade students will join the education director for a special tour of the exhibit. The special children’s activity runs from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. and is free with museum admission.
  • On December 4, exhibit curator Tracy Kamerer will lead a gallery talk tour of the exhibit. The special tour begins with the cup's history and continues through the height of the competition of the Gilded Age when Sir Thomas Lipton fought for the cup with his fleet of Shamrock I through V.
  • On December 11, author of A Full Cup: Sir Thomas Lipton and His Race for the Cup, Michael D’Antonio, will lead a special lecture: “Sir Thomas Lipton and His Race for the Cup.” The lecture will discuss Lipton’s five challenges for the cup and how it transformed the modern cup. Lecture begins promptly at 6:30 p.m. and costs $20 per person.

 Columbia - America's Cup at the Flalger Museum

   “Capturing the Cup” is not just an interesting slice of international sport history, it's also helping bolster American pride as Oracle Team USA racing prepares to defend its 2010 title in the summer of 2013 in San Francisco for the 34th installment of the America’s Cup. Though a bit of a paradox, as its technological advances border on NASA-engineered spacecraft, the race itself has never been so accessible to the lay-sailor. By its very nature, yachting is a pastime of the uber elite, the one percent of the one percent. When it comes to sailboat racing at the level of the America’s Cup, we’re talking about the one percent of the one percent of the one percent, mostly joined together in a consortium to pool resources. These sailing vessels are not only astronomically expensive, but a top-notch crew, up to 24 per team (including coaches and onshore support), comes with its own set of costs. And the boats built for these types of races find little place outside of the race—too big for a day cruise and too utilitarian for a pleasure craft, not to mention storing the monster wing-sails, which do not simply stow away like their cloth counterparts. Mooring the boat in harbor is the only suitable choice besides dismantling the sail itself (time consuming and expensive, cranes are not cheap), so these ships remain essentially parked in third gear.

34th America's Cup - America's Cup World Series - photo by Gilles Martin-Raget

   With that said, America’s Cup has made leaps and bounds to become more accessible. Interestingly enough, according to an Allianz Economic Report, the America’s Cup ranks just behind the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup in terms of worldwide direct and indirect economic benefits to the winner and the event’s host city—there are some high dollars at stake. So for the latest installment, the America’s Cup has instilled what they’re calling LiveLine, giving television viewers, especially landlubbers, a better understanding of the race by digitally superimposing race boundaries, finish lines and head-to-head lines with racing vessels, as well as live data streams (wind speed, vessel speed, etc.) during the race. It may seem like a small addition, especially for those used to the yellow first down line in football or the live tracking in Nascar, but for someone who has never watched an America’s Cup, the race tends to be appear like a chaotic mess of boats sailing around, with someone announced as the winner at the end. There is now a sense of order, with much more insight into what is actually happening.

34th America's Cup - EMIRATES TEAM NEW ZEALAND's AC72 foiling - photo by Chris Cameron

   Currently, the U.S. is wiping the floor with the competition, with ORACLE TEAM USA SPITHILL winning both America’s Cup World Series (AC45) fleet regattas of 2012, even after capsizing in the first race of the day on Saturday, October 6. These recent victories have given Team USA a steady downwind push toward 2013, but fleet racing—AC45 vessels (45-foot catamarans with wing-sail)—is a very different animal then sailing the monster AC72s, America’s Cup modern day sailing vessel. Competition for the ultimate cup will be at a fever pitch, especially with Team New Zealand’s hydrofoil flying vessel, which looks extremely formidable. So come Spring 2013, it’s all catamaran sailing all the time, folks. Be sure to catch the remaining fleet races of America’s Cup World Series, April 16-21 in Venice, Italy and May 14-19 in Naples, Italy. The action returns to U.S. shores for the Louis Vuitton Cup, July 4-September 1, and the America’s Cup Finals, September 7-22, both in San Francisco.


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January 2017