The America’s Cup is back in Old Blighty.
Not in the hands of the Royal Yacht Squadron, mind you, but the silver trophy is in England for the opening America’s Cup World Series regatta of 2015, in Portsmouth on Saturday and Sunday.
It’ll be the first America’s Cup-related racing on the Solent since 1851, when the schooner America beat a fleet of British ships around the Isle of Wight, with Queen Victoria watching the finish.
Fast forward 164 years and while the racing is now in cutting-edge catamarans, there’s still a royal touch. Prince William and his wife Kate — the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge — will be in Portsmouth on Sunday to cheer on Sir Ben Ainslie’s team, Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing.
Ainslie, knighted after winning his fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal at the 2012 London Games, hopes to be the one who finally returns the oldest trophy in international sports to its ancestral home.
“The America’s Cup started here in 1851,” Ainslie said. “We’ve had a few shots over the past 164 years but we’ve never come that close to winning. It’s important to us to get that job done now.”
Ainslie certainly has a sense of history, as does Jimmy Spithill, the skipper of two-time America’s Cup champion Oracle Team USA.
“The Isle of Wight, we can see it, it’s so close,” Spithill said. “It’s kind of cool that it’s gone full circle.”
Spithill noted that a J-class boat from the 1930s will be in Portsmouth as part of the festivities.
“To see that out there on the water, and to see the rocket ships we’ve got now, it’s a pretty cool transition” Spithill said. “It’s good to see the sport has taken a quantum leap.”
The Portsmouth regatta will be the first America’s Cup event since Oracle’s stunning comeback victory against Emirates Team New Zealand on San Francisco Bay in September 2013 to retain the Auld Mug. Ainslie was part of the winning effort, replacing American tactician John Kostecki after Oracle got off to a poor start.
The Cup has since gone through its usual bruising controversies and crises, most of them related to trying to rein in the enormous cost of competing, as well as Oracle’s eye-opening decision to take the 2017 America’s Cup to Bermuda, a British territory.
As always, though, the contentiousness fades to the background when the sailors jump aboard their boats. The teams will be sailing 45-foot catamarans that have been modified to skim across the tops of the waves on hydrofoils.
“Oh, mate, we just can’t wait,” Spithill said. “Everyone’s so hungry for it. It’s going to be a huge event. It’s a long time coming.”
Glenn Ashby, the wing trimmer for Emirates Team New Zealand, agrees.
“It’s going to be a kick in the pants, to be honest. It’s going to be great,” he said.
The original AC45s didn’t foil. The 72-foot catamarans used in the 2013 America’s Cup did.
“Physically these are way more demanding than the past World Series boats,” Spithill said. “It’s been awesome. It’s full on. It’s way faster and there are more chances of making a mistake, that’s for sure. But it’s cool. That’s what makes it rewarding. People are definitely going to see some action, especially if we see some wind.”
Spithill said the foiling 45s are capable of doing close to 50 knots, given the right wind.
Emirates Team New Zealand survived some shaky economic times before re-signing title sponsor Emirates airlines. It also sacked skipper Dean Barker, who was at the wheel when the Kiwis absorbed the soul-crushing loss in the 2013 America’s Cup.
The new skipper is Peter Burling, who teamed with Blair Tuke to win the silver medal in the 49er class at the London Olympics. Tuke also joined Team New Zealand.
Another holdover challenger is Artemis Racing of Sweden. Two new challengers are Groupama Team France and SoftBank Team Japan, which hired Barker as its skipper.
Italy’s Luna Rossa dropped out in April, angered with a midcourse downsize in the catamarans that will be used in 2017.
After a lag in signing sponsors, Cup officials were able to entice Louis Vuitton and BMW to return in expanded roles, as well as sign British watchmaker Bremont as official timing partner.
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