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America's Cup

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The America's Cup has concluded with a marvelous come-back by one boat over another. The intent was to create a spectacle, a public relations spike for San Francisco and competitive sailing, and a new narrative for an old contest that was assumed to be irrelevant in a world that cares only for extreme competition.

But who was competing? The America's Cup has always been the playing field for well-to-do yachtsmen who, through their exclusive clubs, shaped challenges and boat designs for their pleasure. It was like tennis before Grand Slams, or dirt oval racing before NASCAR, or road racing before Formula One. Everyone wore white; the cars were decal-free; and the competition open even to a kid with a fast car and a dream.

With television and the high stakes game of advertising revenue, sport has become a massive capital intensive enterprise that involves publicly funded stadiums, franchise trading, rights negotiations, multimillion dollar player contracts, and other exclusionary barriers that reduce the audience from participants to observers, a phenomenon that might well be (and is becoming) comparable to a passive video game with the high stakes rewards of having a winning fantasy team.

To my mind, extreme sport is not sport at all. And in the context of The America's Cup and sailing, it matters only to a few egos gratified by unconscionable funds spent with no purpose other than self-indulgence. It employs almost no one, invades the airwaves for a few days of diversion and then regresses to petty squabbles, new legal challenges, richer budgets, and public confusion for a few years until it worms its way into our consciousness again.

The ocean is a spectacular place for teaching and learning. Sea experience has formed the bodies, skills, values, and lives of young people for all time the world over. In the 19th century, the canoe was everyman's boat, carried on cars and in trains to rusticating places where people, old and young, rich and poor, could enjoy the natural environment, on the water, at an affordable cost. The ubiquitous sea kayak, roof racked on cars streaming highway toward the coast, are the modern equivalent. The renaissance of interest in construction of traditional boats has spread across the United States, into the Caribbean, through Europe, and to mid, near- and far-east where replicas of forgotten indigenous craft, typically of work boat origin, have assumed a recreational role accessible to many.

For example, a decade ago in the Azores, the typical sailing whaleboat, as efficient and beautiful a craft ever devised, was as extinct as the whaling industry itself. There may have been one or two examples in museums or forgotten in local barns, but the builders were all retired and the whalemen relegated to café tables and memories. Through an American intervention, one builder was brought from retirement to build, with a young apprentice, a new Azorian whaleboat, the first in what was to become more than 50 replicas sailing today in those waters with young people aboard reveling in the lessons that only successful study of the boat and the conditions can provide. Replicas were also built-in the New Bedford, Massachusetts region where many Azorian and other Portuguese families have migrated; a regatta for these vessels with American kids aboard was held just a few weeks ago.

There are many other examples: in France, an explosion of traditional craft construction was driven by a culture magazine, Chasse Maree, in Brittany, that resulted in contests of seamanship in gigs with teams from 12 nations, or in vessels particular to one town's history newly constructed as a symbol of local tradition. More than 100 such vessels today meet and race in local and international festivals. La Semaine de Golfe is one such extraordinary gathering, in the protected inland bay of Mor Bihan, were hundreds of such vessels come together in a week-long celebration of boats and maritime tradition. Other such events occur at wooden boat shows on both coasts of the United States, at Brest and Dournanez, in France, and in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, Germany, Scandinavia, around the Mediterranean, in Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Japan.

The recreational opportunity of the ocean is for everyone. There is a wonderful saying, "Messin' About in Boats," a description of a universal engagement between young people and small craft, first crude rafts, then models, then rowboats with sculling oar, then sail and pulling boats alongshore in every culture. There is a growing phenomenon call "raids," gatherings of small boat owners, old and young, coming together to cruise quietly among islands, camping on beaches, and bonding through an authentic encounter with fellow mariners and the sea.

That is a far cry from technical monsters, barely under control, at 40 knots, racing for a few minutes on foils for the indulgence of a few and a brief ephemeral television audience that is only a channel surf away from indifference.

We will discuss these issues, and more, in future editions of World Ocean Radio.

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