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America’s cup (1958-1980),
the return after the Great War

The competition resumes in 1958 with the 12mR class. With a fast upwind performance and easily manoeuvrable, they made the Cup’s fortune because they gave rise to spectacular races. In the Seventies, the cup went global

Home race America’s cup (1958-1980),
the return after the Great War
America’s cup (1958-1980),
the return after the Great War

After the Second World War, it took some ten years for the America’s Cup to start up again. It did so, also with an eye to the costs involved: the gigantic J-Class vessels were abandoned and in many cases scrapped. For the record, very few of the originals remain today (often rebuilt ones) whilst there have been quite a few “replicas” made. In their place was chosen a class created in 1906: the International 12-Metre Class (or 12mR): these were yachts which were not in fact 12 metres long in dimensional terms, but actually between 19 and 22 metres long.

A new old class

In the 12mR class, twelve is the maximum result of a mathematical formula, which consists of L (being the waterline length), d (the difference between the girth skin and the girth chain), F (freeboard) and S (sail area). This is the formula: L +2 d-F + √ S / 2.37 = 12. The ‘Twelves’ were very popular among shipowners especially towards the end of the 1930s, particularly in Great Britain, Scandinavia, the United States and Germany.

Qualities and defects of the International 12mRs

This was almost an obligatory choice, even though its effects lasted for three decades. The International 12mRs were heavy and slow. They had (and still have, given that there exists an active fleet of them competing in regattas and even a World Championship) only two distinguishing features: they had an exceptional upwind performance - the sailing mode in which they “cling” close to the wind for the return leg - and were much better suited to match-racing (the type of regatta where only two boats compete) than the J-Class, insofar as they were a lot slower but smaller and thus more easily manoeuvrable.

The duels between very close vessels, almost touching each other, which when television became popular made a fortune for the America’s Cup, started taking place in 1958. Certainly, up until the 1980s, the event was limited to the - almost always easy - defence of the Cup on the part of the Americans against each subsequent challenger. On two occasions against the syndicate from their usual English rivals (in 1958 and 1964 when they won with the Columbia and the Constellation) and on the other occasions against an Australian yacht. A decisive period in the history of the Regatta.

Ted Turner, a phenomenon

The opening of the competition to the International 12mRs coincided with the abolition of the regulation demanding that each yacht should arrive at the regatta location solely by its own means of propulsion (it was impossible to think that such a vessel could cross the ocean on its own). This is what opened up new horizons: the “something new” which the America’s Cup needed was perfectly represented by Australia. A young, entrepreneurial nation, and one which was very, very passionate about sailing. Between 1967 and 1980, the “Aussie” syndicate doing battle was soundly beaten 4-0 and 4-1. Defending the 100-Guineas Cup were first the Intrepid (in 1967 and 1970) and then the iconic Courageous in 1974 and 1977. During the second defence by the Courageous, the ship-owner was Ted Turner – at the time just a bizarre tycoon from Atlanta, extremely rich and very outspoken – whom his many critics called “The mouth of the South” or “Captain Outrageous”.

He won comfortably, not least thanks to a great crew. He subsequently became famous for founding CNN and for his marriage to the actress Jane Fonda. In the history of the America’s Cup, he remains a great skipper (who on board alternated between quotations in Latin from Horace and swear words worthy of a docker) but above all for being the only winner to turn up at the prize-giving ceremony blind drunk.

Then came the French and the others

The 1970 edition also marked a turning point. Until that moment, one of the advantages for the defender was represented by the selection regattas used to select it: this allowed the vessel to be rigged to perfection, the crew to be well-drilled for the challenge, and the possibility of finding new solutions prior to the final. During that edition, given that more challengers were arriving at the New York Yacht Club, there was a need to organise the first heats for challengers, which until then used to turn up without any point of references, with consequent obvious disadvantages.

This is where France came on the scene: the fourth nation to try its hand, the first non-English-speaking one and one with a strong and highly-renowned sailing tradition, which was demonstrated by the France: it was owned by the Baron Marcel Bich (the creator of ball-point pens) who, like Sir Thomas Lipton, secured a place on the America’s Cup Hall of Fame for his enormous financial and human commitment displayed during four (futile) attempts. In 1977, together with the France and the Australia, the Sverige took part, representing the Nordic nation of Sweden: obviously it was again the Aussies who ended up challenging the Americans, but the event was by now becoming a global one.

The rise of the Australians

Three years later, there were four challengers. The English returned after a sixteen-year absence, together with the latest boat from the Baron Bich, the second Sverige and a “new” Australia, radically modified in comparison to the 1977 version. This was the third attempt by Alan Bond, who was born in London and at the age of 12 followed his family to the other side of the world: from starting as a decorator’s apprentice in Perth, by the age of 36 he was rich enough to finance his first challenge to the Americans.

He lost twice but learned a lot: in the 1980 edition he dominated the selections for the challenger and succeeded in winning one of the heats in the final with the Freedom. This had not happened for ten years and yet he found himself facing a yacht where the crew had been training for 1,800 hours, twenty times longer than the programme of the best adversary. This is an approach which had never been adopted for the regatta, and one which carried the signature of Dennis Conner, not yet ‘Mr. America’s Cup” but already a great skipper with a bronze Olympic medal under his belt and a first defence with the Courageous in 1974. Once upon a time, Conner’s intelligent choice would again have widened the gap between defenders and challengers. This time the Australians hit back blow for blow – a sign for the future.

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