The 12 contenders for the America's Cup are sailing this week in a regatta in Malmo, Sweden, one of a half-dozen "acts" scheduled as lead-ups to the Cup itself, which will be held in Valencia, Spain, in 2007. The leaders in the early going were the same four teams expected to head the fleet two years from now -- Cup holder Alinghi from Switzerland and challengers BMW Oracle from San Francisco, Emirates Team New Zealand and the Italian entry, Luna Rossa.
So how are the big, tough Cup sailors holding up? Craig Monk, a hulking grinder on BMW Oracle, was quoted on his team's Web site Friday complaining about the weather after his first day of racing in the land of the midnight sun.
"It was cold out there. Not only on the water, but the air, too," said Monk, a 250-pounder who was on the New Zealand team that won the Cup in San Diego in 1995. "We won't ever complain about Valencia being too hot. We miss sailing in shorts and T-shirts. The guys' hands were especially cold, and we all will be adding a layer or two of warmer clothing tomorrow."
Doesn't it make you want to knit them all fisherman's sweaters?
The America's Cup and its preliminary acts, sponsored by the elite French fashion designer Louis Vuitton, has gone about as far as it can go to alienate fans. The event that for 150 years astounded the world with its gilded lunacy and elastic rules has gone corporate. It's too commercial, too programmed and too damned rich for its own good.
Even lifelong followers are throwing up their hands. Herb McCormick, editor of Cruising World magazine, grew up in Newport, R.I., in the glory days when Ted Turner, Bus Mosbacher and Dennis Conner were defending the Auld Mug for the New York Yacht Club, and folks such as French Baron Marcel Bich or Australian winemaker Sir James Hardy were trying to snatch it away. McCormick's sister even married an Aussie Cup sailor.
"I've lived and breathed the America's Cup," he writes on his magazine's Web site, www.cruisingworld.com. "And that makes it all the more devastating to admit my feelings about the next running of the event. . . . I couldn't possibly care less."
The money infuriates him. "The two real favorites -- the defender, Alinghi, bankrolled by the Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli; and the top challenger, Oracle BMW, the sole U.S. representative, backed by software tycoon Larry Ellison -- will have spent upwards of $300 million before the first race," McCormick writes. "Yes, the America's Cup has always been about money. But only recently has the money become so obscene."
"It'd be one thing if the Rich Boys had a little flair, some of the gumption of legendary Cup loser Sir Thomas Lipton or the controversy of Aussie rogue Alan Bond. But by all accounts, Bertarelli and Ellison are two, well, loathsome individuals."
McCormick calls the preliminary acts a "monumental bore" and reckons Valencia is a silly place to hold the Cup anyway, having been chosen over windier, more exciting venues.
All of which leaves the grand prix sailing fan wondering what's left to look forward to. Well, here's something. After a rocky 31/2-year hiatus in which organizers redrew the boat design and the start and finish lines, the Volvo Ocean Race is back. Though slightly diminished with just seven entries, it promises to be more exciting than ever when the fleet leaves Vigo, Spain, on Nov. 12.
This race sends competitors to places really cold -- and really hot -- in a 33,000-mile trip around the world. If Volvo sailors start whining about the weather, you can genuinely sympathize as they battle through the windless doldrums, across the blazing equator and south to the stormy high latitudes, where they will dodge icebergs at terrifying speeds as they circle Antarctica in the loneliest waters on earth.
The new boats are 70 feet long and as fast and fragile in their element as Formula One racecars are on asphalt. They have canting keels with 10,000-pound ballast bulbs at the bottom that can be tipped up to one side to level the boat against the force of strong winds. It's the newest technology in offshore racing and will be tested in the coldest, loneliest, windiest waters anywhere.
Bouwe Bekking, Dutch skipper of the Spanish entry Telefonica MoviStar, sailed his new boat from Australia to Spain in February, going around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. He set a monohull speed record on the way, covering 530 miles in 24 hours, an average speed of 22 knots, and hit a top speed of 38 knots surfing down an immense, Southern Ocean roller.
Bekking said the boats are "the best you could have -- the best sailing boats." But he admitted he'd like to have a few more people than the 10-man crew allotted under rules. Volvo racers will screech along woefully undermanned, usually with just four or five crew on deck, even on the bitterest, windiest nights. America's Cup boats, by contrast, have 17 aboard, and they all get to sleep in their own, toasty beds every night.
Paul Cayard, a veteran of five America's Cups, is back sailing the Volvo as skipper of the U.S. entry Black Pearl. He won the race in 1998 on EF Language, a 60-footer. His main concern this time is safety. "The new boats are very leading-edge," he says. "In a way, they're much more advanced than the America's Cup boats.
"Where we used to smash through waves at 26 knots on the 60-footers, now we'll be smashing through them at 36 knots. That's a lot more power and a lot more water coming over the deck. It will be a challenge keeping everyone on board."
When the Volvo sailors come into the Chesapeake Bay next April for the Baltimore-Annapolis stopover, they will have survived the wildest waters on earth and I, for one, look forward to hearing their sea stories. That's more than I can say for the America's Cup boys, up there blowing on their fingers to keep warm in sunny Sweden.