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America’s Cup Primer: All the things you always wanted to know but never dared to ask

America's Cup

We are the first to admit that the America’s Cup can be a complex competition to understand – especially for those who are following it for the first time – so we thought that a quick reference guide might be useful to help everyone get the most out of the 36th edition taking place in Auckland, New Zealand in the first quarter of 2021.

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What is the America’s Cup?

Described in its basic terms, the America’s Cup is an international yacht racing competition between yacht clubs representing the countries in which they are located.

The winners receive the America’s Cup trophy (you might hear this called the Auld Mug – don’t worry too much about this, just go with it) as well as earning the right to host the next edition, including defining the fundamental aspects of the competition:

– when and where it will be sailed
– what the design parameters of the boats will be
– plus other key rules around the event

For each edition, all of these elements are laid down in an official defining document known as The Protocol.

Why is it called the America’s Cup?

This confuses a lot of people who make the reasonable but incorrect assumption that the trophy and the competition are named after the United States of America. However the name comes from an American racing schooner called ‘America’ that in 1851 sailed to England to challenge the English racing fleet at Cowes on the Isle of Wight off the English south coast.

[While we are talking about the name, make sure you use the apostrophe before the letter s at the end: America’s Cup – not Americas Cup.]

The American vessel famously beat a fleet of English yachts in a race around the island and was awarded a trophy called The Hundred Guinea Cup (you may hear arguments that it was called the Hundred Pound Cup, again, don’t worry too much about that minor detail; we are focusing on the big picture here).

On their arrival back in the United States America’s owners renamed their trophy The America’s Cup and donated it to the New York Yacht Club on the condition that it should be “a perpetual Challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries”.

They laid down a set of other criteria for their new competition in a now ancient document called the Deed of Gift. You can read it for yourself here.

Although it took until 1870 for the first America’s Cup challenge to be received by the New York Yacht Club – which was duly defended – the competition and the trophy are established as the oldest in international sport (you will read and hear that fact repeated a lot too…).

America's Cup
The America’s Cup trophy in situ at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. Image © COR36 | Studio Borlenghi

Who can compete?

Any yacht club that meets the criteria of the Deed of Gift can challenge for the America’s Cup. In the case that there are multiple challenges, a knock out Challenger Selection Series is staged to decide who takes on the Defender in the America’s Cup Match. On certain occasions there have been multiple possible defenders, resulting in a Defender Selection Series to be held.

Since its very earliest times the America’s Cup has always involved the upper echelons of the international business community – typically millionaires or billionaires whose deep pockets and bulging wallets are needed to bankroll the campaigns’ estimated 100 to 200 million-dollar budgets.

Past examples include: Sir Thomas Lipton*; Harold S. Vanderbilt; the Aga Kahn; Larry Ellison, Alan Bond; Torbjörn Törnqvist, Patrizio Bertelli; Ernesto Bertarelli; Peter de Savary; Peter Harrison; Baron Bich; (this is not an exhaustive list by any means, but it gives you an idea). * British tea merchant Lipton deserves special mention for having challenged – unsuccessfully– on five occasions during his lifetime.

The America’s Cup has also become recognised as the pinnacle of competitive yacht racing and as such attracts the world’s best sailors, whose high levels of skill and expertise are required to race each subsequent generation of highly advanced and often radically designed yachts to their full potential.

The list of sailors who have tried and failed to win the America’s Cup is very long and in the modern era it includes multiple Olympic, World and European championship title winners.

Among those who have tried and succeeded, Sir Russell Coutts is the most successful having lifted the America’s Cup three times as a skipper and been on the winning team on two other occasions.

Other renowned winners are American Dennis Conner who won it three times – including famously winning it back after becoming the first American skipper to lose the America’s Cup. That loss took place in Newport, Rhode Island in 1983 when Australian skipper John Bertrand led the first successful non-American America’s Cup challenge.

Another Australian sailor is also synonymous with the America’s Cup. James Spithill has won the Cup twice – both times representing the USA with teams backed by American software company Oracle.

Legendary New Zealand yachtsman and adventurer Sir Peter Blake is also closely associated with the America’s Cup having led New Zealand teams to back-to-back victories in 1992 and 1995.

A mention should also be given to Scottish skipper Charlie Barr who led three successful America’s Cup defences for the Americans in 1899, 1901, and 1903.


Road to Gold


Who have been the most successful nations?

Remarkably, the American New York Yacht Club saw off 24 challenges over a period of 132 years before finally losing the America’s Cup in 1983 to John Bertrand’s Australian challenge from the Royal Perth Yacht Club.

Since then there have been 10 more editions with the trophy going to the USA five times, to Switzerland twice, and to New Zealand three times.

But that is only part of the story in terms of nations taking part in the America’s Cup. Aside from those above who have won, yacht clubs from England, Italy, France, Canada, South Africa, Germany, Russia, and Sweden have also mounted challenges over the years.

America's Cup
Image © Emirates Team New Zealand

What about the boats?

The Americas Cup has always featured head turning yachts that represent the latest thinking in naval architecture at the time. The early years of the competition saw one-off, custom-designed yachts that were built specifically to try to win the America’s Cup.

The 13th America’s Cup in 1920 saw the adoption of the Universal Rule which spawned a new era of magnificently beautiful and majestic yachts known as the J Class. When the America’s Cup resumed after the second world war a new class was adopted in the form of the 12 Meter Class.

The 12s were used through to 1987, after which (following a mismatched 27th America’s Cup in 1988 between an American catamaran and a New Zealand monohull) – a new class – the International America’s Cup Class (IACC) was created for the 28th America’s Cup in 1992.

The IACC served the event up to the 32nd America’s Cup in 2007, following which a new 90-foot class was proposed but never saw the light of day. Instead, the 33rd America’s Cup in 2010 was raced between 100-foot multihulls – a catamaran for the Defender Alinghi and a trimaran for the (ultimately successful) Challenger BMW Oracle Racing.

The 33rd America’s Cup in 2013 saw the introduction by the US Defender of the AC72 catamaran. It is worth noting here that the AC72 was not originally designed as a foiling boat. However, with some clever design work the New Zealand Challenger Emirates Team New Zealand got their boat airborne and forced the other teams to follow suit.

The smaller AC50 foiling catamaran class was introduced for the 34th America’s Cup but this class lasted only one cycle before it was replaced by the radical AC75 foiling monohull design brought in by Emirates Team New Zealand for the 36th America’s Cup in Auckland.

America's Cup
Image © Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli

AC75 snapshot

As you will see in this breakdown, there are plenty things make the AC75 a truly remarkable boat – but here’s three that we think stand out:

1. A foiling monohull of 75 feet in length had never been done before. Nobody really knew if the concept would work outside of the computer modelling, but somehow it did – as evidenced by all four teams who – remarkably – were up and foiling within days of launching their first boats. The video below explains how they fly…

2. Speed-wise the AC75 is truly remarkable, with teams already consistently sailing over 50 knots. There are rumours that the Defender Emirates Team New Zealand have broken through the 100 kilometre/hour barrier (around 54 knots) in training.

3. The double skin-mainsail is a totally new America’s Cup concept which combines the power and performance of a hard wing with the practicalities of a soft sail that can be hoisted and dropped each day.

How do you decide which Challenger races for the America’s Cup?

America's Cup
The Prada Cup. Image © Prada Cup | Studio Borlenghi

In the case of multiple challenges being lodged and accepted, a separate Challenger Selection Series is run to decide which team earns the right to take on the Defender in the America’s Cup Match.

Typically the Challenger Selection Series comprises several ‘round robin’ stages where the teams all race each other multiple times, before the top teams go through to a quarter-final/semi-final/grand-final knockout rounds.

From 1983 until 2017 the winner of the Challenger Selection Series was awarded the Louis Vuitton Cup. For the 36th edition of the America’s Cup a new trophy – the Prada Cup – has been introduced.

Read about the Prada Cup schedule here.

How does the racing work?

The America’s Cup and the Challenger Selection Series are match racing events. In other words, the teams race each other individually one-on-one, rather than all racing together in a fleet format.

In the match racing discipline the normal racing rules of sailing are modified to allow a more attacking style of racing where at times the best option may be to try to force your opponent into breaking a rule and incurring a time penalty. This comes into play particularly in the pre-start session of the race where the crews jockey for position in close company to get the best start.

Up until quite recent editions the teams would race around courses of over 20 miles in length with individual races often taking several hours. The advent of foiling boats in the America’s Cup means has seen a dramatic increase in boatspeed and much smaller courses, resulting in races typically taking around 20 minutes to complete.

The 34th and 35th America’s Cup cycles in San Francisco and Bermuda saw the teams start the race with a fast reaching leg to a turning mark where the teams would turn down wind to on to a multiple windward/leeward (upwind/downwind) section of the course, before finishing at the end of a downwind leg.

The 36th America’s Cup sees the racing taking place around a windward/leeward course, but beginning with an upwind leg instead of the reaching start. This is a move which has found favour with match racing purists.

In line with recent editions of the America’s Cup the course boundaries are marked by no go borders that the teams must not cross while racing. If they do then they get a time penalty.

America's Cup
Image © COR 36 | Studio Borlenghi

A key aspect of match racing is the pre-start period. This is when, in the final minutes leading up to the start, both teams enter a virtual box behind the start line. They can choose to ignore each other and focus on their own starting strategies, or – more typically – engage with each other in a battle for superior positioning at the start, or – more aggressively – try to force their opponent into incurring a time penalty for breaking the rules.

Back in the days of large but relatively slow-moving displacement monohulls the pre-start manoeuvres required considerable skill from the helmsman, tactician and the rest of the crew. Nowadays, with the boats travelling at speeds over 40 knots on their foils, the intensity of the pre-start is significantly heightened with the sailors requiring nerves of steel and split-second timing to pull off the manoeuvres.

How the pre-start match racing evolves during the Prada Cup and into the 36ht America’s Cup Match will be one of the most fascinating aspects of this latest America’s Cup cycle. The good news is that we saw plenty of thrilling pre-start engagements at the America’s Cup World Series warm up regatta in Auckland in December, so chances are there is plenty more to come.

This is probably a good time to point out that the racing is umpired principally electronically by a team based at the media control room back ashore.

It is important to realise that America’s Cup racing is a non-contact sport. Each of the boats is tracked and has a diamond shaped exclusion zone around it, beginning at the bow and widening out to encompass the foils on either side and then tapering back in again to just behind the rudder on the back of the boat.

If two boats come so close that their exclusion zones overlap – even by a fraction – then somebody has broken a rule and will be awarded a time penalty – typically to slow down a certain distance behind the other boat. The umpire decisions are communicated to the crews using coloured lights on board the boats and via the radio.

For more insight into the art of America’s Cup match racing take a look at this video from Matt Cornwell – rules advisor with British Challenger Ineos Team UK.

Who is taking part in the current America’s Cup?

There are four teams contesting the 36th America’s Cup – that is to say, there is one Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand, led by Glenn Ashby, and three Challengers: Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (ITA) skippered by Max Sirena, NYYC American Magic (USA) skippered by Terry Hutchinson, and Ineos Team UK (GBR) skippered by Ben Ainslie.

In terms of helmsmen: the Defender has double Olympic medallist and winner of the 35th America’s Cup Peter Burling; American Magic has America’s Cup veteran Dean Barker; Ineos Team UK have the world’s most successful Olympic sailor Ben Ainslie; while – unusually –Luna Rossa have two-time winner Jimmy Spithill and renowned Italian yachtsman Francesco Bruni sharing the driving with one wheel each.

Although three Challengers might not seem like very many on the face of it, the important thing here is that all three are fully funded campaigns staffed by some of the world’s smartest designers, engineers and boat builders, along with the cream of the crop when it comes to the talented sailors who make up the crews.

You can find more information on the teams here.

How do I watch the 36th America’s Cup?

There are options to watch all the racing online and on TV in most countries. Find out the details here.

And don’t forget – you can follow all our Yacht Racing Life America’s Cup coverage here.


If you have questions you can contact us here. If you want to get our latest updates straight into your mailbox then sign up here for free. If podcasts are your thing there is plenty of America’s Cup related content for you to enjoy on The Yacht Racing Podcast.


Main image © COR36 | Studio Borlenghi

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