America's Cup

February 03, 1992

You can tell the men from the boys, they say, by the cost of their toys. Some of the most expensive toys in the world are on display these days off San Diego, competing for the America's Cup. Once the sailing trophy of the elite, the cup competition is now open to anyone -- anyone with tens of millions of dollars to blow, that is.

There are essentially two kinds of sailors, those who cruise for the pleasure of it and those who find greater satisfaction in competing with other boats. And there are levels of competition, from club races on weekends to major contests which draw entrants from around the world. Some of them are grueling tests of sailing skills, like the Whitbread round-the-world race, in which there was shamefully no American contestant last time out. There was a boat and a crew at the starting line, but they could not raise enough money to sail the course.

Finally, there is the America's Cup. In sailboat racing, it is the pinnacle. But of what? To some, it is the height of international competition. To others, it is the height of irresponsible extravagance. The spectacle of ten individuals or syndicates spending anywhere from $10 million to upwards of $40 million apiece strikes them as grotesque.

But that is the scene in the balmy breezes of Southern California from now till May. Two American groups are competing for the right to defend the cup, won in 1988 in a caricature of a race by the brash Dennis Conner. Eight foreign groups are competing among themselves for the right to challenge the successful Americans. Some of the groups will try as many as four specially built 75-foot yachts just to decide which is the best entrant. Some of the skippers, including Americans sailing under other flags, will draw $1 million salaries.

Even those who harbor no nostalgia for the sort of society that bred the gentlemen sailors who competed for the cup in the 19th and early 20th centuries must regret the demise of sportsmanship and seamanship associated with it. Technology is the dominant characteristic now. Espionage and counter-espionage are the order of the day. The cup competition will work its way forward in the sports sections as it approaches the final round. A nation of landlubbers, oblivious to the fact they are watching a battle of bucks and not of boats, will blindly root for the home team.

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