Returning to San Diego

San Diego © Gilles Martin-Raget


When the America's Cup World Series comes to San Diego from November 12-20, it will be a homecoming of sorts for the America's Cup.

The oldest trophy in international sport was contested on the waters off this Californian city three times, in 1988, 1992 and 1995. In addition, BMW ORACLE Racing used the city as a training base in 2009 en-route to victory in the 33rd America's Cup.

Along the way, San Diego gave us some of the most memorable moments in the modern era of the Cup, including the first time a wingsail and a catamaran were raced in the Cup, a period of stability and growth through the birth of the new International America's Cup Class, as well as the rise and eventual triumph of one of the most dominant nations in the modern America's Cup - New Zealand.

San Diego's story actually begins in Fremantle, Australia in 1987, where American Dennis Conner, 'Mr. America's Cup', won back the trophy he had lost in 1983. But instead of racing for the New York Yacht Club, Conner had won the trophy for his hometown San Diego Yacht Club. After winning the Cup, there was a period of uncertainty as potential challengers awaited word from San Diego on details for the next event. Tired of waiting, New Zealand delivered an unwelcome challenge, giving rise to the first San Diego event.

The 1988 America's Cup is an episode many in the AC community would rather forget. A complicated legal minefield, it degenerated into a Deed of Gift match between the defending San Diego Yacht Club and an opportunistic New Zealand team, who built an enormous monohull and surprised the new American defender with a snap challenge.

The legal issues surrounding the 1988 Cup could, and have, filled many books. Suffice to say that on the water, the race was a mismatch between the monstrous Kiwi big boat (Length Over All - 120 feet; 39 tons) and the defending Stars & Stripes, a catamaran (Length Over All - 60 feet; 3 tons) with a rigid wing mast rig, the first time a multihull was raced in the Cup.

In a Deed of Gift Match, the America's Cup is won by the first team to win two races and the light, powerful catamaran raced away from the enormous monohull in both races for an easy win on the water. Subsequent court cases would give the Cup first to the Kiwis and then, finally, back to the Americans. The whole affair left a bitter taste and did incalculable damage to the reputation of the event.

Sir Michael Fay, the head of the Kiwi challenge explains it this way in Bob Fisher's 'An Absorbing Interest': "It was an unwelcome challenge as far as San Diego was concerned. You could lay a criticism against us if you wanted to in slightly more shrill terms, in that you could call it an inappropriate challenge, an uninvited challenge. But I don't think any words you apply to the challenge justifies the catamaran…"

Many in the Cup world agreed. However, some good did come of the 1988 mismatch. The Cup community came together to design a new International America's Cup Class of boat that would serve the AC through the next five editions of the Cup. One of some 25 designers engaged in the process, Bruce Kirby, wrote for Louis Vuitton: "…we were involved in something very special - the creation of an entirely new and, if we did our jobs well, a very important racing class. This was the boat that would be used in the America's Cup for the foreseeable future, it was a class on which hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent, on which dreams would be built, fantasies acted out and hopes realised or shattered."

In 1992, eight challengers came to San Diego in hopes of claiming the Cup, including an impressive challenge from Italy, Il Moro di Venezia, led by Raul Gardini and his skipper Paul Cayard. The Italians beat the New Zealand Challenge to win the Louis Vuitton Cup and the right to face the Defender, the equally impressive America3. This team was a technology driven effort led by Bill Koch, which squeaked past Dennis Conner in the defender trials. Koch's team would go on to win the Match 4-1 to keep the Cup for San Diego.

But in 1995, the defenders were in trouble. The challenging Black Magic team from New Zealand set the race course ablaze, losing just one race en route to the Cup Match. On the defender side, Dennis Conner used all of his nine lives in surviving a re-jigged defender series that would see him come from behind on the last leg of defender final to win the right to race the dominant challenger.

Despite switching boats and consolidating the resources and assets of the three defender efforts, Conner was no match for the Kiwis, led by Sir Peter Blake and Russell Coutts, who would sweep the America's Cup Match, becoming just the third challenger in the long history of the Cup to claim victory on foreign waters. The San Diego chapter of the America's Cup story had been closed.

The three editions of the Cup in San Diego each contributed in a different way to the evolution of the modern Cup. The 1988 mismatch led to the creation of the IACC class. Big budget efforts of 1992 on both the challenger and defender side led to new restrictions on the number of boats teams could build among other cost-cutting measures, while the 1995 edition saw what a team could achieve through single-minded purpose, planning and execution as evidenced by the Kiwi campaign.

San Diego wasn't quite finished with the America's Cup though. The city would also play a supporting role in the 33rd America's Cup, as BMW ORACLE Racing used the city for a training base during its winning trimaran campaign. In fact, the first time the team used its towering wingsail was during a test session in late 2009 in San Diego.

And now, wingsails and multihulls are coming back to San Diego, as the fleet of AC45s comes to town next month for the America's Cup World Series - there's just something about San Diego and fast sailing.

San Diego © Gilles Martin-Raget / ACEA


San Diego © Gilles Martin-Raget


San Diego © Gilles Martin-Raget


San Diego © Gilles Martin-Raget / ORACLE RACING