History of the America's Cup

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After years of boatbuilding, engineering and, of course, training, the 36th America’s Cup is finally here, the latest in a series stretching back to the 1850s. As fans gather to watch the racing down in Auckland, New Zealand, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate some of the more notable moments in the history of this storied event. For real-time updates on developments down in Auckland, visit sailmagazine.com.


On August 22, the New York Yacht Club’s schooner America wins a 53-mile race around England’s Isle of Wight organized by the Royal Yacht Squadron. It is awarded a “100 Guinea Cup” or “Queen’s Cup,” as it was variously known. Later the trophy comes to be known as the “America’s Cup,” in honor of the schooner that won it.


The America’s Cup trophy is officially donated to the New York YC through a “deed of gift” to be held in trust as a challenge trophy to promote friendly competition among nations. The deed of gift also serves to govern the rules by which other yacht clubs can challenge for the trophy.


The first defense of the America’s Cup against the topsail schooner Cambria. Two yachts represent the New York YC—the schooner Columbia, which wins the first two races, and then Sappho, after Columbia is dismasted in race three. Racing is held off Sandy Hook at the entrance to New York Harbor, site of many historic races in the early days of American yachting.


After a series of successful defenses, the New York YC adopts the Seawanhaka Corinthian Yacht Club rating rule, under which Nathanael Herreshoff designs such iconic yachts as Defender, Columbia and Reliance—the latter the largest racing sloop ever built with a length of 201ft and 16,000ft2 of sail.

Celebrating “the comeback” in 2013

Celebrating “the comeback” in 2013


In his second challenge for the Cup, Lord Dunraven’s 90ft Valkyrie III is defeated by Defender. Dunraven, who feels he was not treated fairly by the race committee following a pre-start collision in the second race, calls foul. His honorary membership in the New York YC is subsequently revoked as part of what comes to be known as the “Dunraven affair.”


Sir Thomas Lipton, of tea fame, embarks on the first of a series of challenges with the William Fife III-designed Shamrock. Although Lipton would fail to ever “lift that auld mug,” as he put it, he very much won in the eyes of the popular press as both a gentlemen and sportsman.


In reaction to the extreme size and dimensions of Reliance—what was called a “racing freak” in the parlance of the day—Herreshoff derives a new “Universal” rating rule intended to result in a new “healthier” generation of boats. Among the resulting classes is the iconic “J” class, which will be used for Cup racing until 1937.


America’s Cup competition moves to Newport, Rhode Island. It’s also the first of the J Class regattas (following an interruption of racing during World War I), with Enterprise defeating Lipton’s Shamrock V. Eight years later, Sir Thomas Sopwith’s Endeavour is defeated by Ranger in the final regatta of the J-class era.


In the wake of World War II, the 12-Metre class is adopted as the official class of the America’s Cup, as the J-class becomes far too expensive. The first 12-Metre America’s Cup takes place in 1958, with the New York YC’s Columbia defeating the Royal Yacht Squadron’s Sceptre.

The 34th America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay

The 34th America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay


The first Australian challenge joins the fray. The New York YC’s Weatherly defeats Australia’s Gretel four races to one in the first challenge from a country other than Canada (which had been among the earliest challengers for the Cup) or Great Britain.


France’s creatively named France sails against Australia’s Gretal II in a first-ever challenger elimination series, a tradition that continues to this day in the form of the Prada Cup. Gretal II moves on to the Cup finals but loses to Intrepid.


The Olin Stephens-designed Courageous, the first all-aluminum 12-Metre, wins the Cup against Australia’s Southern Cross with Ted Hood at the helm. In 1977 with Ted Turner at the helm, Courageous goes on to win a second Cup against the Sun City Yacht Club’s Australia.


The “longest winning streak in sports” comes to an end when Australia’s wing-keeled Australia II with John Bertrand at the helm defeats Dennis Connor and crew aboard Liberty. In addition to the mystery surrounding Australia II’s keel, the regatta offers high drama as the Australians come back from a 1-3 deficit to win the best-of-seven series.


The 12-Metre era goes out with a bang in the wild and wooly conditions off Perth, Australia, courtesy of the locale’s sea breezes, known as the “Freemantle Doctor.” Dennis Connor’s Stars & Stripes 87 earns the right to officially challenge after defeating a dozen different teams from Canada, Italy, New Zealand, France, the UK and the United States. Stars & Stripes goes on to defeat Kookaburra III in four straight races thereby bringing the Cup back to the United States—albeit to the San Diego Yacht Club, on the other side of the continent from where it all started.


New Zealand’s Michael Fay mounts a surprise challenge with KZ1, a monohull with an LWL of 90ft (the maximum allowed by the Deed of Gift), hull “wings” and a crew of 40. Dennis Connor and the San Diego YC are not amused and following a heaping helping of legal wrangling, respond with Stars & Stripes, a 60ft catamaran sporting a wing sail. KZ1 never stands a chance. Fay takes the San Diego YC to court, but loses there, too.


USA-23 defeats Italy’s IL Moro in the first Cup regatta of the International America’s Cup Class (IACC), a new monohull class created in the wake of Fay’s surprise challenge. 



The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s NZL 32, affectionately known as “Black Magic,” sweeps Denis Connor’s team, Stars & Stripes aboard USA-34 (built by the team Young America, which Stars & Stripes had defeated in the Defender elimination series) in five straight races. The 29th Cup is also notable for 1) the dramatic televised sinking of oneAustralia midway through the challenger selection process and 2) the involvement of an almost entirely female crew aboard USA-43, known as “Might Mary.”


New Zealand’s NZL 60 successfully defends against ITA 45 representing Italy’s Yacht Club Punta Ala in the first Cup regatta with neither an American Defender nor an American Challenger in the history of America’s Cup racing.


Russel Coutts and a number of his Kiwi compatriots jump ship and sign on with biotech mogul Ernesto Bertarelli’s Swiss-flagged Alinghi challenge, essentially signaling the end of the nationality requirements that had been part and parcel of the Cup to varying degrees since its inception. The rebel Kiwis, er, Alinghi, sweep New Zealand’s NZL 82 and helmsman Dean Barker 5-0, bringing the Cup back to Europe for the first time since it left in 1851.


Following Alinghi’s successful defense in Valencia, Spain, in 2007, Bertarelli and the Société Nautique de Genève accept as the next “challenger of record” the Club Náutico Español de Vela, a Spanish “club” created for the sole purpose of ensuring the Cup stays in Valencia. U.S. billionaire Larry Ellison is not amused, and the Cup goes back to court. The result is another no-holds-barred “Deed of Gift” regatta, the same as when Fay challenged in 1988, in which the “rules” of the regatta are those set by the somewhat sketchy terms outlined in the original Deed of Gift. Alinghi defends with a massive 90ft catamaran (again, the maximum LWL allowed under the deed) powered by a conventional soft sail. Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing challenges with USA-17, an equally massive trimaran powered by an even more massive wing sail. With young Aussie skipper Jimmy Spithill at the helm, it’s no contest. A new multihull day has dawned.


Tragedy and triumph: the 34th America’s Cup features a brand-new class of wing-sailed 72ft cats competing on San Francisco Bay. Despite the rule-makers’ best efforts at keeping the boats in the water, Emirates Team New Zealand figures out a way to get its boat airborne, leaving the competition no choice but to follow suite. Unfortunately, the boats, though exciting to watch, have pushed the design too far for safety, and British Olympian Andrew “Bart” Simpson is killed following the capsize of Sweden’s Artemis. Later, Jimmy Spithill and Oracle Team USA successfully defend against Dean Barker and ETNZ in “the comeback,” in which Oracle Team USA beats the odds by winning eight races in a row after falling behind eight races to one.


Russell Coutts, now selling his expertise to the Americans, and Larry Ellison shock and disappoint much of the sailing world by staging their 35th Cup defense in Bermuda instead of on San Francisco Bay. The general consensus, even among many U.S. Cup fans, is that it’s a good thing when Emirates Team New Zealand wrests control from Ellison. Their victory is in no small part thanks to the use of bicycle-like “cyclors” (as opposed to hand-operated grinders) to provide the necessary hydraulic pressure to control their boat’s foils and sails. Soon afterward, the Kiwis promise to stage the next Cup aboard mohohulls. The result is the AC75 monohull class we see today. 

All photos courtesy of the America's Cup

February/March 2021



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