Thursday, November 28, 2002

I Like Yacht Racing

This is the golden age of sailboat racing yet you'd never know it.

The boats these days can barely be considered yachts any more than a Formula One Ferrari can be considered an expensive sports car.

Rather today’s sailboats are high-tech racing machines that harness the wind in ways that 19th century schooner captains could never imagine. Just look at this magnificent multi-hull competitor in the transatlantic Route du Rhum and keep in mind that there is only one person on it.

Unfortunately, most of the exciting races now take place in the middle of the Atlantic or way down in New Zealand. For American audiences, they might as well be taking place in . . . well, New Zealand.

The America's Cup race, which used to be held every four years off the stormy coast of Rhode Island is now held wherever the incumbent winning team says they want it held.

When the Americans, under skipper Dennis Conner, an old-school, whiney, blowhard, lost the Cup to the Australians in 1983 -- an upset comparable to the Harlem Globetrotters losing a world-champion game to their perennial straw man opponents, the Washington Generals -- the Cup virtually disappeared from American consciousness. This collective national amnesia is surely one of the worst examples of American poor-sportsmanship in history.

Conner, obsessed with restoring his reputation, has been spending the rest of his life trying to win back the Cup with a mixed record of success. When he did eventually win it back he was representing a team based in San Diego and consequently the America's Cup has never returned to Rhode Island.

Today Conner is sailing for the New York Yacht Club in the Louis Vuitton Cup -- the qualifying round for the America's Cup. If his boat, Stars and Stripes, qualifies as the official challenger and goes on to prevail over the incumbent New Zealanders in the final competition, the America's Cup would be restored to it's home on West 44th Street and the race itself would likely return to Newport where it belongs.

This restoration would be a tremendous boost to a sport often ridiculed as a pastime of the rich, the white, and the uber-privileged. In reality, competition sailing is an intellectually challenging, physically taxing and fiercely competitive meritocracy where many of the best skippers are women. Above all it is spectacularly beautiful.

It it’s own way, yacht racing puts yet another nail in the coffin of 20th century progressivism.

How? Well, the myth of progressivism cannot tolerate beauty in anything deemed bourgeois or plutocratic. That goes for architecture, literature, and the performing arts. To be worthy, these endeavors must make a political statement. That’s why so much of our culture is now so coarse and preachy, why our buildings are brutal and ugly, why contemporary art no longer strives for divinity.

Yacht racing makes its own rather subtly subversive political statement – it is everything progressives claim to desire. It’s international, it’s environmentally friendly, and it’s increasingly gender neutral.

Imagine if yacht racing were to become a truly popular spectator sport? It would require a great deal of explaining.

Elitist? Well, so was golf.

Expensive? Peanuts compared to fielding an NBA team.

Restricted? Yes, to those with ability. If the Americans lose to the Italians there will be no Americans competing in the America’s Cup.

There’s plenty of money and ego involved in the sport but generally it’s behind the scenes. On the decks of the boats themselves are athletes competing for the love of the sport.

Now that’s progressive.

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