Hey, have you heard the news? The United States has won back the America’s Cup. Unless you last name is Towle, the first family of Topeka sailing, that news is sure to mean nothing to you. Still, the fact that this once-heralded contest now goes virtually unknown to America is truly sad.
The America’s Cup is the oldest active trophy in international sport, predating the Modern Olympics by 45 years. The trophy remained in the hands of the New York Yacht Club from 1857 until 1983 when the Cup was won by the Royal Perth Yacht Club, with their yacht, Australia II, ending the longest winning streak in the history of sport. America won it back in 1987 then lost it again in 1995 until last week.
So, why would I even bring this up? I actually have a history with one of the yachts, the 1992 winner America³. When I am asked what events out of the myriad I have been blessed to cover, my time with the crew of America³ will always be right near the top. I owe that to Kansan Bill Koch. Koch made his millions in oil refining, but his not-so-secret love was sailing. Using an estimated $65 million of his own money, Koch mounted an America’s Cup campaign that resulted in eventual victory with Koch at the helm of America³.
Always looking for a good story and a good time, I contacted Bill Koch and was immediately welcomed to join the crew for two days of training, one on land and one at sea. After a big sell job to writer Rick Dean and the paper’s management, two land-lubbers were off to San Diego. As land-locked Kansans, we were greeted with some amusement by the skilled crew that Koch had assembled. The highlight was the delight they had in reminding us that if we fell off the boat, we needed to keep treading water until one of the chase boats could fish us out.
Honestly, for most of the morning, there was little chance of us falling off. We were barely moving. On a beautiful sunny day, the wind simply had died. We crawled along for most of the morning. I easily could negotiate my way around the deck. Once I looked back at Dean sitting just behind the main cockpit on the stern decking. He put his fisted hand to his mouth and acted out a deep yawn to let me know he found it all very boring. Finally, the crew abandoned their duties and gathered to pass out sandwiches and drinks. The huge yacht was free to roam around the Pacific on its own.
However, one man kept a very close eye on the few clouds floating above us. As I said, Koch had assembled a seasoned crew, none more than the sailing legend Buddy Melges. Credited with helping steer Koch to eventual victory, Melges, on this day, proved to be an even better meteorologist as he studied the sky. Quietly, he told the crew to pick up the lunch and resume position. In what seemed only minutes, the yacht’s carbon fiber mast creaked with the strain of wind filling sails. Suddenly, we were rocketing across the ocean at speeds that amazed me. The giant spinnaker was deployed helping us pick up even more speed. So much for my sea legs. I spent the rest of the day crawling on all fours to get into positions to shoot.
I looked back one more time to see if Dean was still bored and did so just in time. While I couldn’t hear Dean’s nails scraping along the pebbled stern deck, I did see his reporter’s notebook flying away in the wind as Dean’s slid towards the drink only to be saved at the last minute by a hulking crew member. The time for joking had ended. The shoreline of San Diego shrank into a pencil strip and eventually disappeared from site. I can’t remember anything more exhilarting.
Eventually, turning back into the wind, we began to tack back with the yacht’s bow smashing into the now rolling ocean. Koch asked if I wanted to take photographs from one of the chase boats. A small rubber Zodiac was called forward. The only way off was a long jump from what seemed to be a towering yacht to an awfully small target as the Zodiac bounced off the hull of America³ in the rolling sea. Talk about a leap of faith, I so wish I had a photo of me dropping down hanging onto my cameras for dear life as I crashed safely onto the Zodiac. The pilot immediately began to circle around the yacht allowing for many dramatic images.
As the day wound down, the chase boat’s pilot suggested we head back ahead of the America³ for photos of the yacht entering the harbor. Giving the two huge Yamaha outboards full thottle, the Zodiac’s driver took me on the greatest amusement park ride of my life. We flew from rolling wave to wave. As the Zodiac went airborne off each wave, the engines’ propellers, with no water to churn, whinned with a shrill, ear-splitting noise never to be forgotten before crashing into the next roller. Over and over we banged our way home. Shockingly, I never got seasick, but felt battered and bruised without hitting anything. Back on land, I was actaully staggered by terra firma. Truly, never to be forgotten memories.
That is why I was shocked to hear this year’s America’s Cup was completed with barely any print or media attention. Even Versus bailed on television coverage. For many, many years the America’s Cup was a matter of national pride. Each defender was built by Americans, crewed by Americans, beloved by even American non-sailors. There were often multiple American teams that fought for the right to defend the Cup. Other nation’s contested inspiring battles for what always seemed inevitable defeat. That is until the Aussies shockingly won the Cup. Things began to change.
Long contested with 12-meter yachts, once the Cup was out of American hands, the yachts took on many changes including monster boats and eventually catamarans. The most recent American winner was a huge trimaran with a solid carbon sail. For a guy like me whose knowledge of sailing pretty much ends with the C-scows that sail at Lake Shawnee, it became hard to keep up. The cost and intense need to push limits given the high costs also dramatically changed the crews. While America technically won back the Cup, only two of the 27 men that manned the winning yacht were American.
So, while interest has waned, I owe the America’s Cup, Bill Koch and America³ for what will always be one of the best days of my life.