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