A Brief History of the Americaís Cup

The Americaís Cup is the oldest sports trophy in the world and it represents the longest winning streak in the history of competitive sports.

By CaptaIn Ray

Published: August, 2012

The America’s Cup is the oldest sports trophy in the world and it represents the longest winning streak in the history of competitive sports. In the sailing world, this is a big deal. In February 2010, Team BMW Oracle Racing won the America’s Cup and brought it to San Francisco—and the team is now preparing to defend its title.

It all began in 1851, when a group of yachtsmen from the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) sailed their yacht America to England. They had commissioned George Steers to design and build her in order to compete in a series of British yacht races and make some money. When they asked, "Is she fast?" Steers responded, "If she doesn’t win, you don’t have to pay for her!" He designed a long (101 feet), low schooner (a particularly American rig), painted her black, and gave her sharply raked masts making her look fast even at anchor.

America’s appearance made quite an impression and the speed she exhibited caused English yachtsmen to shy away from competing with her. Finally, they invited America to compete in the season ending Round the Isle of Wight Race where—because of the many unmarked shallows and complex currents—it was thought she wouldn’t do well. Not only did she do well, she handily beat all 15 entries from the Royal Yacht Squadron. When Queen Victoria learned the Americans had won, she asked who was second. The response she reportedly received was, "Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second!" The winners took the cup back to the New York Yacht Club (NYYC), where it acquired the name America’s Cup in honor of the first boat to win it.

In 1857, the remaining owners of America deeded the "Auld Mug" (as it is known as in the sailing community) to the NYYC as a perpetual challenge trophy "to promote friendly competition among nations." The first challenge came in 1870, with the Royal Thames Yacht Club’s unsuccessful attempt to bring the Cup back to England. What followed was a long series of unsuccessful challenges. Most of these challenges have been by single boats, funded by one wealthy individual. An outstanding example of this was Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton Tea fame, who mounted five unsuccessful challenges between 1899 and 1929, all with vessels named Shamrock.

Both world wars interrupted these contests. Occasionally, legal questions distracted from the racing. The types of boats changed from the original schooners to include the magnificent J Class yachts of the 1930s, the 12 - metre yachts in the years after WW II, catamarans (of several sizes), and one enormous trimaran. The America’s Cup races have always been as much a designer’s race as a sailor’s race. The rules, altered through the years, allow for variations within certain parameters, so the boats have never been identical. By the 1980s, technology was having a strong influence on design of the yachts with the introduction of fiberglass hulls, winged keels, multihulls, and rigid wind sails. As the number of boats wanting to challenge for the Cup increased, a separate, preliminary regatta, called the Louis Vuitton Cup, was created to select the challenger.

American boats established the longest winning streak in the history of competitive sports: 126 years, from the first challenge in 1857 until 1983, when Australia took the Cup down under. The United States promptly won the Cup back at the next challenge, but this time the San Diego Yacht Club won it. From there the Cup traveled to New Zealand and then on to Switzerland. (Yes, that Switzerland—the one without a coastline!) In 2003, Switzerland successfully defended the Cup in Valencia, Spain but lost in 2007 to Team BMW Oracle Racing, sailing for the Golden Gate Yacht Club (GGYC). Larry Ellison brought the America’s Cup to San Francisco Bay, and for the first time in its long history, spectators will easily view the America’s Cup races on nearby shorelines.

The GGYC will defend the Cup with the new AC72, a 72-foot, wingsail catamaran being developed just for this event. The first of them are being launched this month. The races will be held in September 2013. Meanwhile, a worldwide series of regattas (called the America’s Cup World Series) is being held using AC45s, a smaller version of the AC72. The next two will be on San Francisco Bay in late August and early October 2012.

Ray Wichmann, is a US SAILING-certified Ocean Passagemaking Instructor, a US SAILING Instructor Trainer, and a member of US SAILING’s National Faculty. He holds a 100-Ton Master’s License, was a charter skipper in Hawai’i for 15 years, and has sailed on both coasts of the United States, in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Greece. He is presently employed as the Master Instructor at OCSC Sailing in the Berkeley Marina.