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America's Cup: The Agony and Ecstacy - when margins are split seconds or many minutes

by Dr Hamish Ross 15 Nov 2019 01:06 GMT 15 November 2019
Here's what a 1 second margin looks like - Emirates Team NZ heads off Artemis in the second day and penultimate race of the Challenger Final © Richard Gladwell /

The intense effort which goes into the design and development of an America's Cup Challenger or Defender, seems to be over the top at time. However as Dr Hamish Ross, writing for points out often the outcome of an America's Cup is determined by a split second incident - and a scoreline which could have been 2-2 becomes 3-1. In other Matches, the margins have been embarassing.

Like all professional sports, race results in the America’s Cup mean far more than just bragging rights. The reputations and careers of designers and sailors alike are on the line. Millions of dollars are at stake.

Not only the cost of the Challenge or the Defence, which today can run into tens and for the well-funded teams, hundreds of millions of dollars, but also key future sponsorship deals to enable teams to keep competing. Host venues which have invested large sums into facilities, are anxious to see another America’s Cup regatta at the venue to increase the returns on their infrastructure investment. The hopes of fans and sometimes of a nation are often riding on the shoulders of the competitor. “A little bit of boat speed makes you famous” once said an America’s Cup skipper. The unsaid flip side is that a lack of it, will relegate you to obscurity.

Typically, the racing for the Cup is measured in a minute or two, sometimes less, but in the past, there have been some embarrassing results for Challengers.

The all-time worst losing margin was the 39 minutes and 17 seconds loss of the first challenger Cambria, of the Royal Thames Yacht Club, in the first challenge for the America’s Cup in 1870. In fairness to poor Cambria, she was forced to race in a fleet race against the entire NYYC fleet, where which she was subjected to collusions, damage and less than sporting tactics.

The worst losing margin in match racing for the America’s Cup, occurred during the 1881 challenge of the Bay of Quinte Yacht Club, situated on Lake Ontario, Canada. It was represented by Scots/Canadian boatbuilder Alexander Cuthbert. Cuthbert’s yacht building schedule fell behind, and he was forced to take his yacht, Atalanta, down the Erie Canal and the Hudson River into New York, rather than sailing down the coast. At one point, Atalanta was towed by mules, with her ballast moved to list her so to navigate the shallower parts of the Canal. She arrived in New York very late, in an unfinished and rough condition. The first race was won by NYYC’s defender Mischief, (curiously owned by an Englishman living in New York, Joseph Richard Busk) by a margin of 28 minutes and 20 seconds. Atalanta fared even worse in the second race, losing by a record 38 minutes and 54 seconds. This loss remains the highest in Cup match racing history. The next worse was a margin of 30 mins and 21 seconds of Sappho over Livonia in the fourth race of the 1871 match.

Atalanta’s loss was so bad, the Deed of Gift was changed to stop Cuthbert from challenging once more the following season after threatened to do so. The match had cost the NYYC a lot including the cost of building an unsuccessful defender candidate yacht called Pocahontas (soon nicknamed ‘Pokey”, following her poor form) resulting in no real sport. George Schuyler, as the last surviving Donor of the Cup was requested to rewrite the Deed of Gift and he did so in January 1882. The Cup would now be reserved for saltwater yacht clubs (or so they thought until 1984, when the New York Supreme Court mysteriously allowed the Chicago Yacht Club to challenge); yachts had to sail to the venue of the match and defeated yachts could not be used in a match again within two years, and other “refinements”.

Seven yachts have not finished races for the Cup, mostly due to breakages, emphasising the point that the America’s Cup is more than just simply a sailing race. These include the yachts: Colombia in the third race of 1871; Valkyrie III in the third race of 1895 (a withdrawal made in protest against NYYC’s conduct of the match) ; Columbia in the second race of 1899; Shamrock III in the third race of 1903; Resolute in the first race of 1920; Shamrock V in the third race of 1930; New Zealand NZL 82 in the first and fourth races of 2003. A winning America’s Cup engineer once explained; “A perfect, if a rather unattainable America’s Cup engineering feat is if your winning yacht falls apart after crossing the finish line of the last race, I would know I didn’t add any unnecessary weight”.

On the other hand, particularly in the modern era, racing has sometimes been a thrillingly close. There has been a one-second margin, the now-famous seventh race in Valencia, Spain in 2007 when the Swiss Alinghi SUI 100 managed to defeat Emirates Team New Zealand’s New Zealand NZL 92 by the slimmest of margin, after New Zealand performed a required penalty turn close to the finish-line, to win the America’s Cup 5-2.

At the start of the final race in 2007. Alinghi went on to win over Emirates Team New Zealand by 1 second.

Before this, the closest margin of victory was in Race 2 of the 1992 match between America3 and Il Moro Di Venezia, when the later won by only 3 seconds after a close downwind dual.

For the legions of America’s Cup aficionados around the world, it’s all about the first windward beat of the first race. Which yacht is faster? Which is sailing higher? Will the advantage change on the downwind legs? Will the yacht stand up to the rigours of America’s Cup racing? We shall see the answers to those questions in the 36th America’s Cup on the Auckland Harbour, New Zealand in Race 1 on 6 March 2021.

For other stories from the rich history of the America's Cup see

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