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AC35: An Invictus moment for Bermuda?

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Cordell Riley

Ernest Hemingway only got it partly right.

Not only does nobody feel sorry for a pampered girl crying on a yacht, nobody feels sorry for a pampered anyone bemoaning their fate on the deck of a floating symbol of privilege and luxury.

Despite the best efforts of organisers and participants in recent years, a whiff of elitism still clings to high-end sailing.

Yachting remains, almost by definition, a rich man’s sport. And locally, of course, it has long been associated with what was once described as the pre-Second World War “Bermuda of beautiful estates and yachts, of stingers at noon and gin and tonics in the evening.”

This was also the Bermuda of rigid racial segregation, of rule by oligarchy and an inbred, inflexible socio-economic and political system.

It was a Golden Age for well-heeled visitors and Front Street merchants, perhaps, but hardly the good old days for the vast majority of Bermudian families.

Currently some members of the local body putting the organisational structure in place for the 35th America’s Cup to be held in Bermuda waters in 2017 are sulking about the fact the competition is not yet being viewed as a community-building vehicle by all segments of the community.

They might want to reconsider their pouting because, frankly, they only elicit about as much sympathy as Hemingway’s pampered girl.

Instead, it would do them and the international event they’re stewarding far more good to take on board some of the constructive criticism being levelled at them.

The intoxicating spectacle of the high-speed, white-knuckle sailing machines which now compete for the America’s Cup has gained the sport a new audience and broadened its appeal considerably over the last decade.

But more of the sport’s old associations perhaps still linger in Bermuda than most other communities.

Cordell Riley, immediate past president of Citizens Uprooting Racism in Bermuda and a commentator on community affairs, recently argued that local organisers had inadvertently reinforced a number of these negative stereotypes.

Undoubtedly viewed as an irritant by some but as a Jiminy Cricket of the community’s conscience by many, many others, Mr Riley has pointed out the all-white, almost entirely male make-up of the original “Team Bermuda” which negotiated the deal to bring the event here; how at a celebration held at the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club to mark the Island securing hosting rights the only black face in evidence was that of a bartender; and the fact the storied silverware’s actual arrival on the Island was greeted by a lone bagpiper rather than a more culturally inclusive (and internationally recognisable) representative of Bermudian culture like a Gombey troupe.

Mere symbolism, some may scoff.

But such symbols carry powerful and important intellectual and emotional messages. They speak to both the minds and the hearts of those who were once barred by tradition and convention from joining organisations like the Yacht Club but who are now being actively encouraged to embrace yachting as an instrument of national renewal.

The grumbling of some local organisers notwithstanding, Mr Riley almost certainly has support for his views in extremely high places.

Larry Ellison, the data-software billionaire whose Team Oracle is the current America’s Cup holder and the man most responsible for ensuring the event came to Bermuda, is painfully aware of the popular stigmas attached to yachting.

And he is determined to rid the sport of its archaic associations with yachting caps, white flannel trousers and brass-buttoned blazers.

Born into modest circumstances, he did not learn to sail until he attended university in California in his 20s and since then has led a relentless, one-man campaign to both popularise the sport and radically overhaul its stuffy, hidebound image.

The bane of yachting traditionalists since he first competed in an America’s Cup in 2003, Mr Ellison has never wavered in his determination to deconstruct sailing’s snobbish reputation as completely as his nautical engineers reduced Oracle’s wing-sail catamarans to their stripped-down aerodynamic and hydrodynamic essentials.

Mr Riley said he hopes AC35 can be a unifying event for Bermuda in much the same way the World Rugby Cup was for South Africa in 1995. He longs for what he calls an “Invictus moment”, when all Bermudians rally around a sport once completely identified with the ruling caste — and which is still regarded with some skepticism and suspicion as a consequence.

But he doubts there is a local figure sufficiently practiced in what he called Nelson Mandela’s “typically African come-from-behind, consensus building” leadership style capable of pulling off such a coup.

Perhaps there are no local candidates who fit those hugely impressive criteria.

But Mr Riley shouldn’t count out what defending champion Mr Ellison will bring to AC35 other than his team, his knife-edged catamarans and his implacable will to victory.

It’s been said Mr Ellison no longer just wants to win the competition — “he wants to win everyone over, even those who may not know their Sunfish from their starboard.”

And that will certainly include the people of the Island where he opted to hold the 2017 race and some of the qualifying series.

For when it comes to dealing with adversity, challenges and obstacles, Larry Ellison is hardly the kind of individual to take to his yacht, wring his hands and weep.

Larry Ellison
Super sleek, super fast: Oracle Team USA in action. Bermuda will be a venue to showcase the very best in sailing in the America’s Cup