Skill, care triumph over violence

SUN JOURNAL

Trophy: A silversmith beat the clock in overcoming a sledgehammer's blows, restoring the grace of the America's Cup.

January 10, 2000|By Neil A. Grauer | Neil A. Grauer,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Rod Hingston knows the America's Cup inside out -- literally.

Not the strategies of the great yachting competition, but the 27-inch-tall, 16-pound sterling silver America's Cup trophy itself. Without Hingston's extraordinary skills as a silversmith, the sailors who begin battle Feb. 19 for the oldest trophy in international sports would have had no actual cup to compete for.

Hingston, 56, a short, shy, one-time amateur boxer, single-handedly saved the America's Cup. He restored it after its near-destruction by a sledgehammer-wielding political protester who battered it repeatedly during an attack in March 1997 at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron Clubhouse in Auckland.

The New Zealanders, who had won the competition from the San Diego Yacht Club in 1995, feared that the $250,000 trophy was damaged beyond repair. In anguished desperation they turned to the company that created the cup in 1848, R. & G. Garrard (now Asprey & Garrard) of London, official jewelers to the Queen of England.

The firm said it would be "an honor" to repair its old handiwork -- free. Had Garrard's charged for Hingston's work, the repairs would have cost about $32,000.

The Kiwis put the badly crushed cup in a first-class seat and flew it to London, where Garrard's handed it over to Hingston, one of the firm's master craftsmen.

He spent the next three months -- every day, seven days a week -- carefully taking the cup apart, heating its pieces in a huge fireplace, hammering out the dents and restoring the graceful curves and delicate decorations with which Victorian artisans had embellished it 152 years ago.

"Rather than having been simply dropped, it had been maliciously damaged," says Hingston. "Very rare, that. I had to cut it into several pieces so I could get at it. It's sort of like [repairing] car paneling. You have to push out where it was punched in. I had to forget all about the engraving [of the winners' names on the cup], because some of it was going to have to be re-cut."

Given a three-month deadline, Hingston found that the only way to meet it was to devote practically every waking hour to the cup.

Hingston came to the America's Cup by a path far different than those of the wealthy sportsmen who have held it in the past.

Born in London during World War II, he entered the city's Central School of Arts and Crafts in Holborn, initially expressing an interest in doing jewelry work with diamonds -- "only because of the glitter, I think," he now says.

In time, the sheen of silver won him over. He spent five years as an apprentice silversmith concentrating on repair work, then began working on the crafting of original silver pieces. Among his creations are elegant, handmade tea sets and serving trays, as well as trophies for rugby and snooker (billiards). He has spent 22 years as a master silversmith.

As for the America's Cup, it really is not a cup but a ewer, or pitcher. It is hollow, without a bottom. (It sits on a solid base fashioned by Tiffany's decades ago.) Its bulbous center -- 36 inches in diameter -- bears the engraved dates and names of winning boats and captains.

The United States first won the cup -- then known as the Hundred Guineas Cup for its original price, about $500 -- by besting 14 British vessels with the yacht America during a race around Britain's Isle of Wight on Aug. 22, 1851.

For the next 132 years, the cup quietly reposed in the New York Yacht Club, where it was bolted to an oak table inside a glass case, as American crews won every competition.

In 1983 Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond successfully concluded his 13-year, $16 million pursuit of the cup by winning it with his yacht Australia. The cup was perched at the Royal Perth Yacht Club until 1987, when the United States regained it and moved it to the San Diego Yacht Club, home base of the winning skipper, Dennis Conner. In 1995 New Zealand's Black Magic beat Conner's Young America in five straight races, and the cup moved again.

It was hoopla in New Zealand about the forthcoming competition for the cup -- and related commercial development near native fishing grounds around Auckland's harbor -- that apparently enraged Benjamin Peri Nathan, a 27-year-old activist for the country's indigenous and impoverished Maoris.

Nathan went to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron Clubhouse in Auckland on March 14, 1997. Dressed in a suit and tie and carrying a shoulder bag, he claimed to be a journalist and asked to see the America's Cup. He was allowed to walk alone to the second-floor trophy room, where the cup was displayed in a glass case, unguarded.

Nathan pulled a sledgehammer from his shoulder bag, shattered the case, began chanting Maori slogans and pounded the cup with up to 50 blows before maintenance men tore him away.

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