How to debase the oldest challenge trophy in the world*

340px-America's_CupIt’s a pity so many yachting posts have gone up here in the past few days because I’ve just stumbled across one which transcends all rules of decency and has left me shaking my head.

In 1983, Australia lifted the America’s Cup after 132 years, the longest winning streak in history but the event was marred by legal challenges and allegations of last minute rule changes and interpretations.  Four years later, America went downunder and by now the event had a challenger’s series and a defender’s series, tourists flocked and all seemed back to normal.

Then, in 1987, New Zealander Michael Fay issued a rogue challenge, knowing the Americans weren’t ready but Connor’s team, no stranger to stretching the rules, countered by saying, “OK, we accept and we’ll compete in a catamaran.”  For the uninitiated, this is like an Aston Martin competing with a Formula 1 with a young Schumacher at the wheel.

The New Zealand boat, which they had ready to go, was 130 feet long and the fastest boat with one hull [the boaty part itself] in the world at that time.  Fay, who’d chuckled because the Americans would not have had time to build a credible challenger, was now outraged and a legal slanging match ensued.  The court ruled that the event was to be settled on the water, not in the courtroom.

In the most boring multi-million dollar insult to the sport ever, the catamaran naturally powered away to two victories and kept the cup.  NZ legally challenged and the result was reversed, the cup being awarded to the New Zealanders.  The Americans appealed and the result was reversed, giving it to the Americans again.

Clearly some sort of sense had to be brought into it and so an international body was created to govern the event and create some sort of level playing field.  A standard boat was chosen, everyone agreed and the rich boys’ game was on again.  A number of challenges were issued, teams from all round the world competed and the thing was relatively orderly once more.

Until 2007.

In 2007, Alinghi of Switzerland won the event and as Switzerland is landlocked and doesn’t have anywhere to sail this event, for the next defence, in 2009/2010, it was put out to tender and Valencia won.  Not only that but Alinghi issued the rules of the contest and there were two shocks.  A yacht club specifically started up for the event issued a challenge, making a mockery of the Deed of Gift which required that only an established yacht club could challenge.

That is, it was meant to be one country versus another.  Alinghi had already corroded that definition by running a multinational team, the Emirates joined with New Zealand and the thing was getting ridiculous.  Alinghi immediately accepted the challenge from Valencia and money was talking overtime.

Not only that but Alinghi stated that the event was to be sailed for by multihulls, ie. catamarans and trimarans.

BMW Oracle Racing, Golden Gate, challenged in court and the faux Spanish club was ruled out.  The Americans issued their own challenge and Alinghi refused.  The court decided they had to accept.  All right, said Alinghi, we accept and you have to race your trimaran against our catamaran.

The Americans demanded that the event be held in 2009 but because of all the litigation, various rulings made it not possible until 2010, in February in fact.  Alinghi said it was ridiculous to sail from Valencia in winter – sailing is a summer sport.  The Americans got a court order insisting on it … or else Alinghi could go to the southern hemisphere, where it would be summer.

Alinghi issued a statement announcing that the event woud be held in the Middle-East, they finished building their boat and had it lifted by helicopter from Switzerland to the Middle-East.  What sort of major money were we talking here?

The Americans litigated and insisted that it was a “non-Deed” venue but that Valencia was acceptabe to both.  Alinghi pointed out that Valencia was fine but not in February.  The earliest anyone can sail there is in May.  The Americans insisted, through a court order.

Alinghi promptly got themselves ready and said they’d meet the Americans in February in Valencia.  The Americans disagreed and wanted the event postponed now but Alinghi insisted.

The boats

BMW Oracle is a fast boat and it might have been line ball between them and the Alinghi catamaran until the Americans discovered that Alinghi had replaced the crew [humans] with a machine which shifted ballast sideways, eliminating the need for humans on board.  The Americans challenged through the court but it was not successful.  They are now scrambling to get a machine into their own trimaran because without it, they can’t win.

Alinghi also sent out the design measurement criteria, i.e. the measurements that the two boats must conform to and what it meant was that the American boat would miss out by a small margin from conforming, which effectively means they couldn’t challenge.  They took Alinghi to court and this time won.

That was the situation immediately pre-Christmas, 2009 and reports say that the American boat is now being shipped to Valencia.  An international jury has been convened for the race and February 8 sees the first race.


What has been forgotten in all this is that Alinghi had also accepted legitimate challenges in 2007/8 from a host of other nations and these nations ran the Challenge Cup in February 2009 – each team forking out millions of dollars for the right to challenge Alinghi.

However, due to the litigation and the American court rulings, this whole challenge process has just been swept away as if it had never happened.


The America’s Cup has never been noted for its sportsmanship and 1988 was bad but this now is the worst which has occurred.  The whole event, the Deed Gift, the history, the prestige, has now gone.  It is no longer one country challenging another but it is consortium versus consortium competing for a tarnished name but that’s a small matter to the billionaire owners – they will have won something that was for 132 years a trophy of value.

It is significant that not long ago, someone walked into the room where the cup is stored and took to it with a sledgehammer.  The firm who were the original crafters of the cup have been working on it for months now, trying to restore it in what seemed a forlorn task.

Meanwhile, out in the courts, the America’s Cup has taken a savage beating for the glory of two moguls.

*  See comments for explanation.


3 comments for “How to debase the oldest challenge trophy in the world*

  1. December 27, 2009 at 00:35

    I thought it was Dogget’s Coat and Badge

  2. December 27, 2009 at 08:48

    You’re right, Jams, as far as “sporting competitions” goes. However, this is the oldest “challenge trophy”.

    Doggett’s: 1715
    America’s Cup: 1851

  3. MadPiper
    December 27, 2009 at 23:34

    All the legal wranglers make it look like a mess of spoiled sports. And it detracts from the competition.

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