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A very British race

As momentum builds regarding the potential for a British America’s Cup, here’s a little piece I wrote for the 2014 Cowes Handbook on why we’d like the America’s Cup back. Right here. On the Isle of Wight (if that’s alright with you, Mr Ellison?).

(also viewable at http://www.cowes.co.uk/A-very-British-race.aspx)

The autumn of 2013 had sailors around the world glued to the television watching the 34th America’s Cup out in San Francisco. As Oracle Team USA battled it out against Emirates Team New Zealand, flying high around San Francisco Bay on 72ft wing-sailed catamarans, it seemed a very long way away from the sailing most Solent yachtsmen and women enjoy.

But the America’s Cup, deep down at heart, is a Solent event. More than that, it’s a Cowes event. And we’d quite like it back, please.

The ‘Auld Mug’ has always been an outrageous contest of ego and expenditure, and its origins were no different. The challenge was designed to find the fastest yacht of all time – America was commissioned by the New York Yacht Club on the basis that if the yacht was beaten by any other US boat, the club did not have to take delivery (nor, presumably, pay).

To determine whether America was also faster than any British design, a race was held around the Isle of Wight on 22 August, 1851. Fourteen yachts set off from the Royal Yacht Squadron – the first challenge was to actually get moving, as the race began with all boats anchored and sails down. The fleet set off eastwards, with instructions for all yachts to sail outside of the Nab Lighthouse – now the site of the Nab Tower – to avoid ledges nearby. However, America had other ideas, and took a short-cut inside the point, moving up from fifth to first. Despite protestations of cheating America was deemed the winner.

Amongst those watching the spectacle was Queen Victoria, having left her East Cowes residence to view the finish line (and possibly to escape the royal builders, as the main wing of Osborne House was only completed that year). As America took the gun she famously asked an aide who was second, only to be told: “Your Majesty, there is no second.”

Sadly second is the closest a British boat has ever got. Britain has challenged many times, but never once wrested the Cup from the Americans. That feat has still only ever been achieved by three nations in 163 years: Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland.

Might the 35th America’s Cup be the one to change that? It was of course a Solent yachtsman, Sir Ben Ainslie, who directed Oracle Team USA to victory in San Francisco last summer. If the America’s Cup were ever to be held around the Isle of Wight again, he would be the first person to call, having set a new course record in the 2013 J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race by blasting around in under three hours (some eight hours faster than America all those years ago).

Mr J.P. Morgan himself won the Cup twice, when Columbia defeated British tea mogul Sir Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock yachts in 1899 and 1901, and today the American finance house sponsors Sir Ben. Can Ainslie raise the funds to create a winning British challenger? We’ll all be watching developments closely throughout 2014. But if Ben can win the America’s Cup back from San Francisco to the Solent it won’t be tea we’ll be drinking.

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“The Yacht ‘America’ Winning the International Race” by the American artist Fitz Hugh Lane. Courtesy of the Peabody Collection.

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