America's Cup- The Rich Man's Sport

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Captains of industry turned competitive yachtsmen is nothing new in the exclusive world of the rich and famous.

In 1851, steamship ferry owner John Stevens and a group of wealthy businessmen representing the New York Yacht Club defeated the best of the English fleet in a sailing race around the Isle of Wight.

The winners took home a ewer-shaped cup and through a deed of gift, declared the prize a “challenge trophy” for promoting friendly competition among nations.

The America’s Cup was born.

Fast forward 159 years, tech billionaire Larry Ellison sailed-off with the America’s Cup trophy in 2010 after successfully challenging Alinghi, a racing syndicate led by Swiss pharmaceutical mogul, Ernesto Bertarelli.

Yacht racing is as much a test of fund raising and management expertise as it is sailing skill and boat design. The catalog of ocean-going racers reads like a who’s who list in business and finance.

Thomas Lipton, founder of Lipton tea, was the most persistent challenger of the America’s Cup, throwing the sailing gauntlet five times from 1899-1930 on his vessel the Shamrock. He never managed to hoist the trophy.

Fellow Brit and co-founder of Hawker Aircraft, Thomas Sopwith, picked up the challenge with his Endeavor (photo above) following Lipton’s string of unsuccessful runs. Sopwith lost twice to American Harold Vanderbilt, an executive-heir to his family’s railroad fortune.

Representing the New York Yacht Club, members of the Vanderbilt family won the America’s Cup multiple times. Industry titans John Forbes and JP Morgan successfully defended the Cup as well, both on behalf of the same prestigious club.

Unlike governing bodies that regulate competitions in organizations such as the Olympics and FIFA, the America’s Cup sits in a class of its own. 

The terms and conditions of each race- date, location, boat types, etc.- are set by the defender and agreed to by a challenger.

Whether by design or tradition, the process is akin to businessmen cutting a deal.

Underpinning the framework for racing the Cup is the original deed of gift, held in trust by New York’s Supreme Court. The document has only been revised three times over the course of its storied history.  Legal spats between racing tycoons have occasionally sent the document to the New York court of appeals for interpretation.

After 132 years and 25 challenges, the America’s Cup trophy left the U.S. for the first time in 1983 when Australian business magnate Alan Bond claimed the race and whisked the trophy away to its new home at the Royal Perth Yacht Club.

It was Bond’s fourth shot as a challenger, which he finally won with the Australia II. Earlier, one of his victorious opponents was future CNN founder,Ted Turner, who skippered the Courageous when he took the Cup in 1977.

Bond’s greater than life stature suffered when he declared bankruptcy in 1992 and was convicted and imprisoned for financial fraud.

Due to its popularity among racers, efforts and appeals have been made to lower the cost of the America’s Cup competition by introducing smaller boats and less expensive designs.

Though by its very nature, the America’s Cup will always be a rich man’s sport.

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