America's Cup World Series: So This Is Sailing?

The race course, sitting in the shadow of Lower Manhattan.

The race course, sitting in the shadow of Lower Manhattan.

The group assembled for the Thursday morning skipper’s press conference at the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series was a mish mash of media representatives, all with different goals and deadlines.

“I’m SnapChatting this for Time Out New York,” said the man next to me. A woman from Yahoo Finance was ready to Live Facebook the event, and was preparing her selfie in her iPhone.

If the face of the media has changed in the last few years, the face of the America’s Cup is almost unrecognizable. Boats look more like flying razorblades than they do sailboats. Skippers wear helmets and pound Red Bull in between races. Racing is closer to shore, with sailors hurtling their boats at upwards of 25 knots toward a seawall packed full of screaming spectators. Practically the only thing that remains the same is the actual Cup, the 160-year old trophy. And even that now travels with its own bodyguards.

On the water, though, the language of sailing was still being spoken. And despite the technology, if there wasn’t wind, there wasn’t sailing (which was the case for most of Saturday).


@oracleteamusa wowed the crowds this weekend at Louis Vuitton America's Cup World Series New York. #LVACWSNY

A photo posted by America's Cup (@americascup) on

An Instagram posting by the America's Cup shows Oracle being towed back and forth in front of the crowd of spectators between races.

The America’s Cup World Series was created in 2011 as a means of marketing the greater event, the America’s Cup, taking advantage of the foiling catamarans, albeit in smaller sizes. Similar circuits, such as the Extreme Sailing Series, have likewise been popular with a more generalized crowd. The New York stopover was the fifth of six planned stops, culminating in Chicago in June. The boats used for the World Series are AC45s, while the AC50 will be used for the final match in June of 2017 in Bermuda. 

If race organizers were hoping to make a statement with Lower Manhattan in the background, they certainly managed to do that.

If race organizers were hoping to make a statement with Lower Manhattan in the background, they certainly managed to do that.

One of the distinct challenges of racing on the Hudson was the close proximity of skyscrapers to the race course, which funneled fingers of breeze down onto the water, making a schizophrenic grid for sailors. In addition, anywhere between three and five knots of current were present at times. And given the abilities of these boats to lift off and just go, at just .7 nautical miles per leg, this was a tight course.

The racecourse was given to boats for two hours during the afternoon on Saturday and Sunday for racing. They had to evacuate the waterway immediately after 4 p.m. to allow a waiting cruise ship to enter the harbor and disembark passengers.

“In terms of topography for disturbing wind flow this is probably the most disruptive it could be and in my opinion the last place on earth you would want to put a race course,” Sir Ben Ainslie later wrote in the Telegraph, after finishing a defeating fifth in the series. Perhaps he went into the weekend with more optimism. Ainslie is the first British challenger to race in New York Harbor since Sir Thomas Lipton (of the tea), who raced there in 1920. And admittedly, things were a bit different then, both on land and on the water.

Reliance (Nathaniel Herreshoff) and Shamrock III (Sir Thomas Lipton) at the start of the 1903 America's Cup. Click for source.

Reliance (Nathaniel Herreshoff) and Shamrock III (Sir Thomas Lipton) at the start of the 1903 America's Cup.

But Ainslie is bringing voice to something other sailors are struggling to communicate: the fact that the America’s Cup World Series, and other high energy sailing events like it, is an effort to sell sailing to the general public, and a huge break from the traditional sailing that we've come to know. There has never been a significant race run in the waters off Lower Manhattan, and now we know there is a reason for that. Ainslie has been immensely successful in fundraising for the Land Rover BAR campaign, raising $73 million since it was announced he would helm the campaign. On the New York race course, a passenger boat with a banner reading “#BringTheCupHome” was listing to one side from the weight of passengers crowding to the starboard rail for a glimpse at their team.

As far as the sport is concerned, Ainslie would definitely bring in the new viewers. The Duchess of Cambridge (also known as Kate Middleton) is Land Rover BAR’s patron, and frequently makes appearances at his side. He is married to BBC News presenter Georgie (Lady Ainslie to you and me). Ainslie is about as mediagenic as sailors come these days, in addition to being a primary reason for Jimmy Spithill’s turnaround comeback in the 2013 Cup (did we mention he’s a world champion sailor?).


About to go Galactic with @richardbranson but this time on a foiling multihull #lvacwsnyc A photo posted by Ben Ainslie (@benainslie) on

Despite all the work he’s putting in off the water, Ainslie and the Land Rover BAR team are in third place overall in the series (in two races, he was beaten by Franck Cammas onboard Groupama. Cammas recently suffered an open fracture in his tibia and fibula. “I get around the boat slower, but the boat goes just as fast,” he told us).

Watching the boats on the water, no one boat stands out from the rest. In the four races run over the weekend (one was a “substitute race” and did not end up counting), four different teams won, with ETNZ coming away as the overall points winner. During the last race, ETNZ hooked the starting pin and dragged it into the race course, puncturing their hull in the process. Crewman Blair Tuke jumped into the water to cut the boat free. They were sailing unencumbered just as Oracle rounded the first mark. However, during the last leg, the wind shut down everywhere on the course. Emirates TNZ found a line of breeze and sailed around the fleet to victory, beating Oracle by 19 seconds.

Fast forward to the 50-second mark to see the start of the final race, when the mark was hooked and dragged.

Whether or not this is a test of skill and tactics or just a show is debatable. Given the outreach of the event organizers, who brought in celebrities like Lindsey Vonn to sail (she didn’t stay to watch the actual racing, but attended the Kentucky Derby instead) and Jason Biggs (he was in the movie “American Pie”), this is a show for non-sailors. Non-sailors aren’t concerned about the wind or current (during lulls, chase boats were dragging the AC45s back and forth along the seawall to demonstrate foiling under power).


05/05/16 - New York (USA) - 35th America's Cup Bermuda 2017 - Louis Vuitton America's Cup World Series New York - Media Day -1 - Lindsey Vonn onboard OTUSA

Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn onboard Oracle Team USA. Photo by Ricardo Pinto for the America's Cup. Vonn did not stay to watch the racing itself.

So what can we expect, coming into Chicago next month and shortly enough Bermuda? Is this iteration of a 160-year old sailing competition going to be a spectacle of flying razorblades and flashy celebrities? Or are we going to see some actual sport competition, without the excess materials that were apparently necessary to make this event "interesting"? Are we going to see skippers actively matched against each other, without the “sixth man” celebrity apprentice onboard? Are we going to see the boats’ limits tested? Or are we going to be given tight race courses that are meant to keep the people on shore interested? If we do call this America's Cup into question, are we considered traditionalists? Or are we just sailors who have the ability to focus on things like wind, current, tactical maneuvering and sheer determination? Sometimes "racing" involves two boats moving at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour. It doesn't have to be super sexy to be fascinating. Or does it?

And when we do have that one skipper who stands out above the rest, are we really appreciating him because of his sailing? Or are we just concerned with how many Twitter followers he has?