Written by Dr. Hamish Ross
49 years ago, the first race in an official America’s Cup Challenger Series was held in the waters off Newport, Rhode Island. The first race was between the 12-meter yachts France, owned by Baron Bich, founder and owner of the Bic pen company, and Gretel II, owned by Australian media magnate, Sir Frank Packer.
The road to the first Challenger Series was a long one. For most of its tenure, the New York Yacht Club had held a hotly fought Defender Selection Series or “trials” as they were called to select a suitable defender yacht. The Defender Series always produced a finely tuned yacht to defend the Cup against a much less well-prepared challenger and was a significant factor in the Club’s long tenure of the America’s Cup.
In 1961, Sir Frank Packer pre-empted an English Challenger being planned under the name “Red-Duster”, (nautical slang for the British Red Ensign) and despite the intervention of the Duke of Edinburgh, Packer refused to budge and allow the British to have priority or to make a joint challenge. “…every now and then you have to give the young fellow his head.” he wrote. His challenge, the first Australian challenge in the yacht Gretel was a creditable first challenge, winning a race in the match, and setting Australia on the path to eventual victory in 1983 in the wing-keeled Australia II.
An embryonic Challenger Series was held between two British yachts in 1964, Sovereign and Kurrewa V in Newport, in a contest to represent the challenger yacht club Royal Thames Yacht Club. Sovereign proved to be the better yacht, but she fell way short of the defender Constellation in the America’s Cup match losing 4-0 by large margins. This match would prove to be the last appearance of Britain in an America’s Cup match after 94 years and 16 attempts on the Cup.
After the 1967 match, four countries expressed interest in challenging; Britain, Greece, France and Australia. This left the NYYC with a diplomatic problem of how to select one of them as the challenger, without offending the others. The solution was to allow a Challenger Selection Series to mirror its defender trials. The procedural effect would be, the winner of the Challenger Selection Series (if it was not the challenger under the Deed of Gift) would take an assignment of the challenge made under the Deed of Gift.
Not without misgivings however, as one NYYC America’s Cup Committee member, Charles Adams wrote, “I am troubled by the thought that theoretically someday a host of nations may overwhelm us by the magnitude of their effort … .” He would be proved right. Since 1970 the Cup has changed hands on six occasions, in no small measure due to a Challenger Series preparing a challenger suitable to take on the Defender in the match, and there being no Defender Selection Series or trials since 1995 in San Diego.
In 1970, the Challengers fought for the Lipton Cup donated by the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, the yacht club Sir Thomas Lipton represented in all his five challenges (1899, 1901, 1903, 1920, and 1930). The Cup is still awarded by the Club and is held by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. In 1983, Louis Vuitton, at the suggestion of French America’s Cup skipper Bruno Trouble, sponsored the series, and the challengers fought for a new trophy, the Louis Vuitton Cup. The Louis Vuitton Cup was held nine times until 2017. The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron now holds the Louis Vuitton Cup after Emirates Team New Zealand won the Challenger Selection Series in Bermuda in 2017, the fourth time it has held the Cup, and the last time the Cup could be won.
In early 2021, the challengers for the America’s Cup will compete in Auckland for a new trophy under a new sponsor, the Prada Cup, and for the right to meet Emirates Team New Zealand in the Match for the America’s Cup.
The Challenger Selection Series has given us many special moments in America’s Cup racing and our sport would have been much poorer without it.
For the record, the first Challenger Selection Series race was won by Gretel II which defeated France by 20 seconds. Gretel II, has been restored and was recently relocated to Hobart, Tasmania, with a berth at the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania. France has also been restored and still sails in France.