How the Admiral's Cup came to this

Peter Bentley considers the fate of the Admiral's Cup

Tuesday March 20th 2001, Author: Peter Bentley, Location: United Kingdom
The demise of the Admiral's Cup in its present form can be no real surprise to anyone who has watched the evolution of so-called "offshore racing" over the past few years. While true blue-water events such as The Race, the Vendée Globe and the Volvo Ocean Race prosper, recreational big-boat sailing has become more of a dash round the cans or a sprint down the coast. For sure, the classic offshore races such as the Fastnet or the Sydney-Hobart still attract a big following, but the nature of the competition has changed. No longer are these events at the forefront of competitive sailing. For most crews they have become an adventure and a life-forming experience in the same mould as the BT Global Challenge.
Offshore racing has become inshore racing. Even though boats are designed with bunks and cookers, the only time they are used is on passage from one event to the next. Three or four short races, each of 60 to 90 minutes duration is the order of the day. When they do stay out after dark, races will most likely last only 18 or 24 hours. The performance penalty incurred by even so much as a single crewman off the rail is enough to ensure there is no sleep and no hot food. The boats may have become faster and more fun to sail but they are also less seaworthy and, if we are honest, anything more than 12 hours at a time in most modern "offshore" racing boats is sheer unadulterated misery.

Back in the beginning (1957 to be precise) the Admiral's Cup fleet was made up almost entirely of amateur owners (that's to say they had "real" jobs elsewhere when they were not sailing) who by and large skippered their own boats. Their crews were made up largely of friends with a smattering of paid hands to look after the boats and deliver them from one regatta to the next. Before the advent of the Admiral's Cup, international competition in these kinds of boats was to all intents and purposes non-existent. A universal international handicap rule had yet to be invented, level-rating classes were still a way away and offshore one-designs had hardly been thought of. The Admiral's Cup was, in its day, a brilliant idea that served the purposes of its time perfectly.

Slowly the event transformed itself into a full-on professional championship with paid crews and even more highly paid professional skippers, tacticians and navigators. Cost spiralled ever higher. Sponsorship crept in. Yet despite determined efforts, the full force of commercialism never took hold. The reality was that the returns simply did not match the investment required. The professional sailors started to look elsewhere to sell their talents. Finally an owner-driver class was introduced. No longer was this the pinnacle of ocean racing - the Admiral's Cup had lost its way.

The Admiral's Cup now has to answer the most basic question of all. Is it a concept from a previous era that is past its sell-by date? Maybe, just maybe, there is already enough competitive international racing elsewhere. Perhaps the world simply no longer needs a three-boat international team event. Could it be that the professional sailors are off preparing for the America's Cup and the Volvo Ocean Race and the rest of the world is looking for something different from the Admiral's Cup? Judging by this year's entries it certainly seems to be the case.

There can be no doubt that, irrespective of the success or failure of this year's regatta, the RORC will be looking at a radically different format for 2003. How the "New Admiral's Cup" fares will depend on the vision of the RORC. Like the original in 1957, it will need to be a product of its day that appeals to owners and crews and offers them a level and type of competition that cannot be found elsewhere.

Perhaps the answer is to drop any pretension to international teams. How many entries would the RORC already have if the rules simply specified three-boat teams with no mention of nationality? Experience from the last Admiral's Cup in 1999 shows well enough how hard it has become to define nationality, with several boats scrambling to find enough crew from the home country to fulfil the criteria.

There have been suggestions that the Admiral's Cup could reinvent itself as a three-boat team-racing regatta using three Farr40's or three Mumm 30's (or a couple of each). On the face of it this looks like an attractive idea. There is no doubt that if the right classes were chosen, the tarnished jewel in the RORC crown could yet again sparkle - for a while. If the RORC is so confident that IR200 - its new rating rule - will be a success, why not use this as the basis for the reconfigured Admiral's Cup regatta? The possibilities are endless.

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