Perhaps we should reconsider the name?

Today is the Fourth of July, and a day on which Americans are encouraged to cook out, enjoy the sun, and engage in a little bit of unashamed national pride as they celebrate Independence Day. Today, however, I haven’t been able to really get into the spirit of the thing. How can any American stand tall with their head up, knowing that the Swiss, of all people, have won the greatest race in yachting, once again depriving America of the cup that bears her name.

The America’s Cup was founded in 1851, and first held off of the coast of the Isle of Wight. Originally named the Royal Yacht Squadron Cup, the trophy was renamed in honor of the America, the boat that won the race its first year. What is now known as the America’s Cup is the oldest active trophy in international competition in any sport. It predates the modern Olympics, which didn’t begin until either 1859 or 1895, depending on your definitions.

From the America’s victory in 1851, the cup was held by not only an American yacht club, but by the same single yacht club, until 1983, constituting the longest winning streak in any sport. Following a 132 year unbeaten record, a loss is hard to take. Even worse, the United States has not produced a winner at all since 1992. A 15 year losing streak is more than my sense of national honor is prepared to tolerate.

My father was a sailing enthusiast, and while I have not found my interests drawing me to the water as much as his did, I have long been interested in the America’s Cup. To me, the excitement is as much about the skill and tactical smarts of the crews of the boats as it is about the technological battle to produce the faster vessel. In the modern incarnation of the race, the technology is at least as, if not more, important to the outcome.

The design of hulls and sails, masts and rigging, have all come a long way in the last 156 years. Beyond that, the technology used to design them has been revolutionized. Ships used to be designed by hand, based on nothing more than the knowledge and guesswork of the designer, and then tested with painstakingly hand-crafted miniatures to determine hull performance. The impact of highly precise modeling of the hydrodynamic effects of even tiny changes to hull configuration have completely changed the process and the boats themselves.

I’ve also got a special place in my heart for sails. I like sailing vessels in general, but there is something that makes me happy about seeing the sails on a racing boat. Watching the boats make the turn at the buoy to begin the downwind leg of the race, and seeing the huge spinnaker sails unfurl to catch huge gulps of wind never fails to bring a smile to my face.

For the United States to loose a race named in her honor to a landlocked, mountain country is nearly unthinkable. Yes, although the syndicate is registered in Switzerland, the majority of its members actually hail from New Zealand, with other members from a variety of European nations and Australia, the U.S., and Canada. Even so, it is the principal of the thing.

This country dominated the cup for more than a century. The United States still produces some of the finest physicists and engineers in the world. Surely in a test built on a foundation of fluid dynamics and engineering, we should be able to bring the Cup home. The richest nation in the world should be able to win a yacht race.

I have enjoyed celebrating the Fourth of July today, and I am proud to be a part of this nation. I will be even more proud, however, to see the winner of the next America’s Cup hoist the stars and stripes after she crosses the finish line. We will all be able to stand a little taller.

-posted by Mark


4 Responses to Perhaps we should reconsider the name?

  1. Dana says:

    I dunno, Mark, I think it makes a certain amount of sense that the Swiss would win a competition that now seems to rely greatly on money and meticulous engineering. 🙂

    And as I said before, I am always amused at the extent to which racing seems to reduce the vehicles involved into utterly useless versions of what they’re supposed to be, at enormous expense. Those admittedly impressive boats made me laugh, what with the deck entirely covered in two-man gears for controlling the sails, and the little motorized rafty boat that follows them around to catch the sails at the end, because they just dump them in the water. Heeheehee…

  2. laikal says:

    I’ve never seen competitive yachting — how much does the engineering and fabrication matter versus the piloting of the craft? My big problem with automotive racing these days is that the race is 75% decided at the starting line, with another 10-15% being decided by (admittedly interesting) tactical decisions about in-race maintenance of the vehicles.

    I think that we should still call it the America’s Cup, given that we have a 9:1 win/loss ratio going. That’s… dominant.

  3. TheGnat says:

    Besides, it isn’t named for the U.S.A., it’s named for a the first ship to win the race, which happened to be named America, which given when the race was created, could as much have been chosen for the “potential” seen in the American continents as the sailors’ country of origin.

    Besides, if modern people name it, it will probably end up with something horrible and long that no one can ever remember properly.

  4. Mark says:

    Miss Gnat,

    The America was designed and built by Americans, and her hull was constructed in an American shipyard. She was, in turn, named for the country, and won the race by quite a considerable margin. The trophy then named in her honor is named, at least by association, for the nation, and I don’t find it unreasonable to think that it should be a matter of national pride to win it once in a while.

    The title of the blog was more tongue-in-cheek than it was a serious suggestion that we should rename the competition. I agree that if we renamed it now, it would be named the “Acme Banking Company Give Us More Money Oh Wait I Mean We Love To Be Generous Sponsors Championship Series” or something equally horrible.


    The America’s Cup is interesting in that it is a race between two boats. There is a “Challenger’s Selection Series”, now named after and sponsored by the Louis Vuitton Company, to determine which single team has the right to challenge the current champion in the America’s Cup. In this regard, there is less difficulty with the starting grid deciding the race before it begins, because each America’s Cup race, and indeed each race in the Challenger’s Series leading up to it, is a contest between only two boats.

    There is a decided advantage to starting upwind of your opponent. In the Challenger’s Series, this advantage is determined by the flip of a coin for the first race, and then alternates for each race following as the would-be challengers go through two round-robins, followed by a two-round elimination. Because it is not a single race, and over the course of the series any given member of the pool of challengers will have equal time with and without this advantage, the series is notably more fair in this regard than modern automotive racing. In addition, the America’s Cup itself is a best-of-nine competition, with the upwind position alternating each race, further reducing the impact of starting position.

    Yacht racing is heavily dependent on engineering and fabrication. However, the rules governing the design of the boats involved are strict enough to ensure broad parity between opponents. Given that every team that might hope to actually contend in the races invests such huge sums on their engineering efforts, all of them have access to the same tools, and the skill of the crews becomes the deciding factor.

    Racing a sailboat is a matter of deciding on how and when you will tack your boat back and forth across the wind to reach where you are going. Different choices about when to turn, based on when and where the wind is expected to be most favorable, play a very important role in determining the outcome. In addition, because the wind coming off of one boat’s sails will disrupt the wind coming into the other boat’s sails, the relative positioning of the two boats is critical. On the upwind leg of the race, which comes first, the boat in the lead has the advantage, as they are clear of their opponent’s eddies. However, once the boats reach the midway point and turn around, the trailing skipper has the advantage, and can attempt to foul the wind of the lead boat.

    Because the race begins with a moving start, with the boats attempting to time their arrival at the starting line as close to the starting gun as possible, there is also a measure of this same tactical thinking before the race properly begins. A boat that approaches the line too fast will be forced to slow down, while a boat coming too slowly will not be at top speed when the race begins, and will likely give up an early lead. These mistakes can be further compounded when the lead boat forces its opponent to tack immediately after crossing the line in order to move out of this downwind wash.

    There is also an element of more strategic choices in the configuration of the boats. By changing various elements of the rigging and especially the keel, the crew of a boat can alter its performance. In general, the trade-off is that by increasing the upwind speed of the boat by allowing it to hold a tack closer to the wind, the downwind speed of the boat is reduced due to the increased drag of the keel wings required. Finding the right balance of upwind and downwind speed is an important consideration, as it is not something that can be changed once the race has begun.

    Overall, I think that yacht races place considerably more importance on the skill and tactical choices of the crew than do other forms of vehicle racing. They also rely on the performance of an entire crew working together, rather than on a single driver as in most other vehicle races. Pit crews in auto racing are at least as important as the crews responsible for configuring a yacht, but even when it’s moving at full speed, a yacht relies on no less than thirty people on board to keep her trimmed and running true. It feels to me that the combination of these factors makes yacht racing much more about the human aspect.

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