November 5, 2002

A More Interesting Race

By: Raul Damas

Raul DamasSettling in to write yet another election post-mortem, I demurred, realizing that at best it would be yet another election post-mortem. Every possible explanation for the GOP victory has been circulated and I’m not proud enough to believe I can contribute anything new to the discussion.

Like many of my fellow political operatives, I’m suffering from post-partum depression of the electoral variety.

The tension and excitement the races provided are gone, and the Louisiana Senate runoff simply won’t cut the mustard. There is, however, a race currently underway featuring perennial campaign themes: young versus old, dueling rich guys, and old-fashioned patriotism.

On the far side of the world, eight candidates are campaigning for the right to challenge a powerful incumbent in a multi-million dollar race.

The Luis Vuitton Challenge is the sailing world’s primary election. The victor wins the right to challenge the current America’s Cup holder, New Zealand. And, as with most political races, the all-out primary that precedes the general election is often more exciting and revealing of the true nature of the game.

The current Challenge features eight entries from six different countries. America has three teams, with Great Britain, France, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland each fielding one in the current stage.

It’s a struggle for America to regain its position as the sole sailing superpower. Unlike the World Cup, where America is just now beginning to find its legs, the America’s Cup has long been the domain of America alone.

For the 99% of you unaware or uninterested in the world of competitive sailing, allow me to briefly recap the last 150 years of America’s Cup history.

In 1851, 18 cutters and schooners raced a distance of 58 nautical miles around the Isle of Wight for the Hundred Guinea Cup offered as a prize by Queen Victoria.

Her Royal Highness bestowed a silver tankard, the “ugliest cup in sport,” on the victor yacht “America.” It has since become the namesake for the oldest trophy in sport – the America’s Cup.

During the next 132 years, the Americans successfully defended “their” Cup every time they were challenged. In 1983, however, the Australians pulled off a surprising coup, ending America’s winning streak.

American Dennis Conner, responsible for losing the trophy in 1982, recovered it in 1987 and successfully defended it in 1992, before losing it again in 1995.

Still with me?

New Zealand, victorious in 1995, fought off all challengers in the last America’s Cup and is poised to do it again this February.

But America has fielded three teams of varying strengths in the best-funded, most experienced effort in our nation’s history. The preliminary heats placed two American teams in the top three and the real racing is already underway in the quarterfinals.

So, where is the American public in this climate ripe for nationalistic fervor? Talking about how they don’t care about J-Lo.

Still, it’s tough to hold a grudge given sailing as a spectator sport. If you think soccer makes for boring television, you’ve never watched sailing on the tube. Aside from the torrent of technical jargon emanating from the Kiwi-accented announcers, there simply isn’t much happening topside during a race.

Indeed, with sailing, as with most things, the real drama occurs on shore.

Just like political campaigns, sailing campaign funding is critical to success. Among the American teams, there is a clear split between the old and the new money being funneled into the race.

This Cup may represent the end of the old moneyed sailing aristocracy that for so long held the sport in its limp-wristed grip.

The New York Yacht Club, aside from having the most poorly funded campaign, suffered a severe indignity when its boat sunk during practice. What may be worse is that they’ve chosen to use that boat in an attempt to recover from their dismal performance thus far.

The emergence and dominance of West Coast syndicates further underscores the NYYC’s deterioration and heralds the rise of new economy wealth. West Coast teams, Oracle/BMW and One World, are built on giant corporate egos and fueled by New Economy dollars.

Oracle’s Larry Ellison is a modern Ted Turner, often skippering the Golden Gate Yacht Club’s entry. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen backed the Seattle Yacht Club’s entry, One World. This is the nautical equivalent of Mike Bloomberg versus Jon Corzine for president–except both these guys are broke compared to Ellison and Allen.

Thanks to the high-dollar contributions of these corporate behemoths, the U.S. is finally fielding well-funded teams like the rest of the world.

This brings us to my favorite campaign theme: America versus the rest of the world.

As noted above, it’s do-or-die for American sailors. If we return home for the third straight time without the Cup, America’s sailing reputation will be permanently damaged and arguing that it should continue to be called the “America’s Cup” made all the more difficult.

So clearly there remains plenty of tension on the scale of electoral politics, only this is politics afloat.