I remember a conversation with Paul Cayard, CEO of Artemis racing a couple months ago. We were talking about how the outside world views the America's Cup, and how everyday people were having trouble getting connected with the event.
Said Cayard, "If people have heard of the America's Cup, it's that soccer championship so there is that recognition issue, and then those who know, a lot of people think it's the Baron Rothschild and Marble House and that's the stigma that the American's Cup had."
"But now the sailors are not eating dinner at Marble House with their blazers on, Now they are training at the gym for an hour and debriefing what happened the day before," said Cayard. "My first Cup was in 1983, we weren't paid and we went to the gym a little bit, but if we had an offer to go out to have some drinks with some girls we probably did that. Cause that was cool and we were young and we could wake up the next morning and bounce back and sail the boat that was going eight knots pretty good and it wasn't a problem."
But hangovers and walks of shame aren't in the cards for this year's race. "In this race with your heart pegged at 91 for an entire race there can be no dust, nobody can have any dust on them with these boats."
This was the Cup that we all want to see, the top sailors in the world racing the best boats. The days of champagne and blazers and going to insanely large mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, for meals on china are over. Instead, the day is filled with creating athletes that can handle 40 knot, 72 foot racing machines.
So you can imagine my excitement yesterday, as I headed down to the America's Cup Park to watch the opening ceremony. This was the moment where that old-fashioned reputation got ejected out the air lock, and people finally would get to see what this event is all about. And I have to admit, they pulled it off.
And they also didn't.
Yesterday was really about two ceremonies, and I think in a way it is emblematic of the changing identity of the Cup right now. When I arrived, as a vaunted member of America's press corps (hey, stop the giggling in the back row there), I had an invitation to the private event at "Club 72" that preceded the opening ceremony itself. And when I arrived at the "club" I was confronted immediately with a sea of... blue blazers. Yep, they were everywhere, gold buttons flashing and polo collars at attention. So much for dispelling stereotypes.
The drink of choice was apparently gin and tonics, which the bartenders, desperately trying to keep up, were manufacturing in vast quantities. I looked over in the corner, and saw two stern security guards flanking the Cup itself. Of course, they were also wearing blue blazers. I asked one of them if the Cup is like other celebrities and demands things like green M&Ms in its trailer. Nope, he replied, but she does get to fly first class. That's right, "she." Apparently the Cup is female and she gets better treatment at the airport than the rest of us..
We got the word that it was time to wander over to the America's Cup Pavilion for the ceremony, and upon arriving it was yet another head shaking moment. Smack in the middle of the Pavilion was the very obvious VIP section. The chairs were bright candy colors, each with a little side table that had an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne in it. That way the rest of the crowd was sure to notice the candy-color chairs with champagne bottles. That they didn't have.
So of course I rejected this whole ridiculous set up... right after I had a glass of champagne. Then I headed out of the VIP section and started talking to people in the bleachers. Normal people, wearing flip-flops and fleece and not a blazer among them. One was a couple from Mountain View who know more about the Cup than I do. Sue has been following along since 1977 and Ted Turner's defense, and she could rattle off every skipper since. She even went down to New Zealand to watch Paul Cayard try to take it away in 2000. Her husband stayed behind, but he did point out that he helped paid for it.
Another family had a ten-year old son and a twelve-year old daughter who were both there because they liked the speed they had seen with the 45-foot catamarans the prior summer. And now they were at the opening, and excited to watch the races live.
A group from Healthy Ocean Project was in the stands, fresh off a beach cleaning operation with Oracle Team USA. They pulled out over 2,000 pounds of trash from the oceanfront as part of a community benefit for The Cup, but they had never actually seen a sailboat race. Still the twelve-year old boy proudly announced that he had beaten his dad at one of the virtual reality sailing games at the Park. When I asked him if he wanted to get into sailing now, he sad yes because, "the best thing about it is they can get these big huge heavy sailboats to go, like, 50 miles an hour. They pretty much fly across the water."
Russell Coutts from Oracle Team USA once told me that one of the reasons for the 72-foot catamarans was not just to get people excited about the Cup, but to start getting the kids excited about the Cup. And the more I circled the Pavilion, the more excited kids I saw. I glanced over at the VIP section, which appeared suddenly a little out-of-place, almost like a box from the Kentucky Derby. Suddenly a Maori war chant burst out from the stage, signaling emphatically that this is not your father's America's Cup. And maybe that's a good thing. Looking at the everyday people who had packed the bleachers, the days of Marble House suddenly seemed very far away indeed.