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A guide to America's Cup
St. Petersburg resident spent 40 years preparing and the last two years in Spain training for the Super Bowl of Sailing.
By TERRY TOMALIN
Published June 23, 2007
St. Petersburg resident Ed Baird has spent the past 40 years preparing for one event: the America's Cup. The Super Bowl of Sailing starts today in Valencia, Spain, and Baird is a critical part of the Swiss team Alinghi, the defending champion. "You can't get any more competitive than this, " said Baird, who has spent the past two years in Spain preparing for the 32nd America's Cup. "In the world of sailing, this is as far as you can go. Baird, 49, is no stranger to the international sailing scene. He helped Team New Zealand win its first Cup in 1995. The father of three who got his start racing prams at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club also skippered the New York Yacht Club's Young American entry in 2000. Baird, one of the three helmsman on the Swiss team, thinks this year's best-of-nine series will be the most competitive in history. "The New Zealanders are very experienced, " he said. "The technology is so advanced ... everything has come a long way since the last Cup."
- In 1851, as the British and Americans debated who built the fastest sailing ships, a showdown was scheduled for the waters off Isle of Wight. A schooner, aptly named America that represented the New York Yacht Club, buzzed past the crown's entry and took home the Royal Yacht Squadron's 100 Guinea Cup.
- The trophy, sailing's best, was renamed after the yacht that won her. The trophy would stay in New York for more than 100 years.
- Hailed as the oldest sporting event in the world (competitors battled for the trophy nine times before the first modern Olympic Games were held in 1896), the America's Cup has come to epitomize the friendly competition between nations.
- The contest, in which the winning yacht club hosts the competition and sets the rules, is normally held every three to five years. But there has been some long gaps in competition, particularly 1937 to 1958, when most of the free world was at war.
An international field
Sports fans may wonder why the Cup is held annually like the World Series or Super Bowl, but it takes three or four years for a "syndicate" or team to build its boats and train a crew.
Unlike other forms of competitive sailing where boats race in fleets, the America's Cup is a "match" race between the "defender" and a "challenger, " which was determined in a series of races earlier this year on the waters off Valencia, Spain.
Spain did not win the last America's Cup; the Swiss did. But since Switzerland is a landlocked country, the Alinghi team had to pick a spot on the ocean. Valencia seemed ideal.
The Challenger Series for the 32nd Cup had one of the most diverse fields in the history of the sport. The heavy hitters - America, Italy, Australia and New Zealand - were there, but the field also contained some first-timers, including entries from South Africa and China.
The American entry, BMW Oracle Racing, did poorly. In the end, Team New Zealand emerged victorious from the Challenger fleet, setting the stage for a rematch with the Swiss, who captured the cup from the Kiwis in 2003.
The great boats of Cups past have become legends in sailing circles, much the way baseball fans refer to superstars of the sport such as Koufax or Mantle by just one name.
In 1899, Columbia entered the sailing vernacular when the 40-meter steel-hulled yacht defeated Irish entry Shamrock. In 1983, Australia II with a space-age keel design cloaked in secrecy entered the record books when it snatched the Cup from American hands for the first time in history.
In 1988, American Dennis Conner shocked the world when he successfully defended the cup in a 54-foot catamaran called Stars & Stripes. The challenger from New Zealand, a 90-foot monohull, also gained notoriety because it departed from the 12-meter format that had dominated Cup racing since 1958. After the catamaran/big boat mismatch, the America's Cup adopted a set of standards for size, weight, etc. that governs the sport today.
In 2003, the Swiss entry Alinghi used numerous technological advances to win 32 of 35 races in the Challenger Series before going on to defeat the defending champion, Team New Zealand.
A viewer's guide
Just having a fast boat is not enough to win the Cup. The 17-person crew must work together as one to get the most out of the boat. Like a quarterback, the helmsman must guide his team to victory; but without good grinders, who like NFL lineman do all the heavy lifting, his efforts would be a an exercise in futility.
Since the America's Cup is a one-on-one match race, much of the strategy involves keeping the opponent from scoring, or in this case, crossing the finish line first. That is why viewers will often hear television analysts talk about "blocking, " or keeping the opposing boat from advancing.
That is why a key player on any Cup crew is the tactician whose sole job is to think two or three steps ahead of the current action.
The course, which can be up to 18.5 nautical miles in length, is designed to test both boat speed and the crew's skill. The boats usually make three laps, and the race is often won or lost in the "prestart" as the teams jockey to be the first across the starting line.
Follow the action
On the Internet, at www.americascup.com.
On television, Versus TV (consult your local listings).
In the 31 races held since 1951, the American entry has won 27 times. The U.S. lost the Cup in 1983 to the Australians.
From 1870 to 1920, the America's Cup was held in the waters off New York City. From 1930 to 1983, the Cup races were sailed off Newport, R.I.
The last Cup race held in U.S. territory was 1995 when Young America lost to the New Zealand entry, Black Magic, on the waters off San Diego.
After the Americans, the New Zealanders have won the most Cups with two.
The Swiss became the first landlocked country to win the America's Cup in 2003 when Alinghi defeated Team New Zealand.
About Ed Baird
- Helmsman for Alinghi, 2007 America's Cup
- Three-time Match racing World Champion (1995, 2003, 2004)
- Skipper of Young America, the New York Yacht Club's challenger for the America's Cup 2000
- 1995 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year
- Sparring helmsman for the 1995 America's Cup Winner, Team New Zealand
- J/24 World Champion
- Laser World Champion
About Mark Mendelblatt
- St. Petersburg's Mark Mendelblatt, one of the top-ranked Laser sailors in the world, is a member of cup challenger Team New Zealand. An injury to another crew member pushed Mendeblatt into a starter's position during the Challenger Series. Without the St. Pete Yacht Club sailor's help, the Kiwis may not have made it to the America's Cup.