The 1851 Cup surprised me. Initially I was sceptical about the exhibition match between TeamOrigin and BMW ORACLE to commemorate the original race around the Isle of Wight that became the America’s Cup, but having experienced the event last week in Cowes and having seen the coverage that was generated for the sport in non-sailing press, it was a resounding success.
Perhaps most surprising of all was the action. While the Defender (the challenger seems to be MIA) continues speculation about competing the 34th America’s Cup in a multi-hull, the version 5 boats provided exciting action in the strong Solent breeze.
The 55 mile ‘Around the Island’ race could have been a rather dull affair, but James Spithill and Ben Ainslie raced it as if they were on a 1 mile match racing course. Added to the aggressive match racing tactics were ripped spinnakers and broken spinnaker poles and sailing on the very edge of the envelope that the boats were designed for.
Perhaps sensing that the race would not deliver the picture perfect finish, the rules were rigged in a NASCAR style agreement that had many followers totally confused. Apparently both teams agreed that if one was too far ahead at a certain point, they would restart with a one minute time penalty to the boat that had been behind. To the non-sailing guests that I was with, it made a bit of a mockery of the whole thing. Comparisons with WWF wresting were made, which is hardly the kind of perception you want to give newcomers to the sport.
The other downside was that the racing took place so far offshore. This is partly because of the amount of water needed to sail the boats and partly because Cowes Week gives priority to the other races. Like many of the America’s Cups of the past, the action could only be followed by boat. Although images were beamed back to a shoreside screen with live commentary augmented by ‘Virtual Eye’ 3D animation, the event doesn’t come close to the spectator experience provided around the corner by the Extreme Sailing Series.
No doubt, Jaguar’s opportunistic sponsorship of TeamOrigin for the event would have delivered a pretty decent ROI. It remains to be seen whether the deal will last longer than the ‘Summer of Sailing’. Many of the sponsorship decisions related to the America’s Cup will be put on hold until key information is released – including where the events will be sailed.
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