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No longer an America’s Cup sceptic

Fantastic foiling: Emirates Team New Zealand lead Oracle Team USA during the America’s Cup Match (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

I’ll admit it, I was a sceptic — or at best ambivalent — about the whole America’s Cup thing. Then last Thursday, Jimmy Spithill flew the Oracle boat at full foiling speed ten feet off our beam in 15 knots of breeze on the Great Sound in Bermuda. All we heard was the whoosh of foils boiling along in the aqua-blue waters as they flew by — and all we saw was the intense concentration of the Oracle Team USA crew as they focused on their speed runs. Wow, I became a believer!

I was aboard the Sperry photo boat as they gathered video footage of Oracle, the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup and anything else happening on the Great Sound that day. (Sperry is the official shoe of AC35, Oracle Team USA and SoftBank Team Japan.) Nothing like a front-row seat for flying catamarans. Later, on the first day of the finals, I was invited aboard the SoftBank spectator boat, where we had live play-by-play analysis, a great sushi lunch and the legendary John Bertrand on board for the Aussie perspective — rumour has it that the first man to “steal” the Cup back in 1983 will be leading a new Aussie team should the Kiwis prevail. We tended to watch starts and mark roundings on the flatscreen in the saloon, while taking in the rest of the races from the top deck. You needed the video stream to see the positions of the boats on the course, but could easily see the major mistakes whenever the teams dumped the boats off their foils.

I’ll leave the racing analysis to those better equipped than me to analyse the results of the first four races. That said, if Emirates Team New Zealand continue to dominate the way it has, the end result could be more than a little anticlimactic after these two teams’ dramatic encounter the last time around. But who cares? The America’s Cup in Bermuda is indeed a spectacle worth taking part in. Having sailed down to Bermuda in the Marion Bermuda Race, I had traded a slow race for some very fast boats and was glad I stuck around to see it.

From virtually nothing, Bermuda and the Cup transformed the Dockyard area, built a connected island/marina, set up myriad mooring areas for visiting yachts, established an entire event protocol for competitors and visitors, built an interactive village for all ages — including the cool “Endeavour” programme for children — and marketed the whole thing worldwide. And in the end, it all came together as planned.

There seemed to be a healthy number of international visitors; many there for the spectacle, some there for the sailing. Yeah, you can complain that the foiling cats aren’t real sailboats, there are few sailors aboard, it’s hard to root for a “nation”, pick your issue. But everyone there was having a great time and it was fun to soak it all in.

What also amazed me was the sheer number of racing events outside of the actual Cup itself. Superyachts? Yeah, got a bunch of those, including the crazy, majestic Maltese Falcon. J Class yachts? Yep, seven of ‘em duking it out on the Great Sound and offshore. “Old” AC45 cats? All part of the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup series — where the young Kiwi skipper Peter Burling emerged victorious in 2013. Children having fun in small boats? Sure, why not put an international roster of young sailors into a fleet of O’pen Bics and let them race in the middle of it all, led around their racecourse by the irrepressible Nevin Sayre on bullhorn, the Pied Piper of the class. (“Hey kids, when you clear this mark, capsize and then stand up for the next leg!”)

OK, so maybe hotel prices were up a bit, the promised enormous crowds didn’t quite materialise, dinners are never cheap in Bermuda, and the whole thing seems to stretch on for ever on the calendar. Nonetheless, there were still rooms available, dining tables open, scooters for rent and the beaches — and the Dark ‘N Stormies — are still the greatest. Locals I talked with seemed to have embraced the event, albeit with some scepticism about another Cup in the future (see San Francisco). Taxi drivers were their usual talkative selves, restaurant and bar staff helpful. Did I mention the D&S’s were tasty? And then there were all those US and NZ flags flying pretty much everywhere. Hard to say who won the flag battle, but Spithill did say in the opening presser: “It’s clear to me who Bermuda wants to win!”

Many years ago, I bobbed around off Newport watching small white triangles move across the horizon. The fun then was in the harbour, where you could get up close and personal to the boats and the people.

In Bermuda this year, spectator boats could get close to the competition, and the America’s Cup Village beckoned for entertainment — and commerce. But there was no Candy Store where mere mortals could rub elbows with the sailing greats post-race. So yes, it was different than the good-old 12-Metre days in Newport. But it was still exciting to be a part of and I think the Cup organisers are on to something here.

This article first appeared on Thursday and is reprinted with permission from Sail Magazine