Let it be recorded that for one night, April 30, 2009, representatives of Alinghi and BMW Oracle sat together in the same room in support of the same cause...the America's Cup. Both organizations were sponsors of the Herreshoff Marine Museum's America's Cup Hall of Fame event last night at the New York Yacht Club, a celebration of the America's Cup's 167 years of competition and a night to officially induct three new members to the Hall of Fame. The club's model room looked spectacular, and surrounded by full models of nearly every past Cup defender and challenger, more than 300 black-tie guests ate fish or filet mignon while listening to an extremely long yet enjoyable round of slides, video, speechifying and storytelling, moderated by Halsey Herreshoff, president of the Museum.
In fact, as the major sponsor of the event, Rolex Watch USA occupied the head table with the speakers at center stage, and company CEO Allen Brill raffled off a YachtMaster watch during the proceedings. The current defender (Alinghi, including Murray Jones and Hall of Famer Brad Butterworth) and challenger (BMW Oracle, including spokesman Tom Ehman) were separated to the left and right of the podium and speakers' table. And let it be noted that the speakers took several opportunities to criticize, poke fun, cajole, and otherwise make the point that the event should be on the water, not in court, starting at the outset with NYYC Commodore David Elwell, who appealed for a fair and open competition and said that the club stood ready to assist.
Author John Rousmaniere spoke about the ship-like nature of the clubhouse and some of the Cup's history, and spent some time ribbing, to his left, the "un-lawyer", Tom Ehman (who was also involved in the 1988 Big-boat-versus-catamaran match) and, to his right, the grammarians of Alinghi for their 200-page brief defining the word "having."
Keynote speaker, Sir Keith Mills, the principal of the British would-be challenger Team Origin, started by poking fun at his own country, asking rhetorically how one of the world's greatest sailing nations could've lost the Cup in the first place...40 yachts versus 1 on a course around the Isle of Wight on which local knowledge of the tides is paramount. He reviewed Sir Thomas Lipton's patience and well-recognized sportsmanship, and indicated that he was in no way like the five-time Cup challenger in that he didn't have 30 years to be patient in his attempt to win the Cup. Sir Keith went on to describe why he thought Team Origin could succeed with Ben Ainslie at the helm, Moose Sanderson running the sailing operation, Juan Kouyoumdjian as designer, and ample funding provided. He expressed his extreme frustration with the litigation of the last 18 months saying his team was "dressed up to dance but had nobody to dance with."
Sir Keith suggested that both sides should admit that they had made mistakes and take up their responsibility to provide leadership through sportsmanship and he quoted an old Chinese proverb for Ernesto and Larry: "Do not remove a fly from your friend's forehead with a hachet."
Gary Jobson subsequently showed a video celebrating the best and worst moments in the Cup over the years, and pulled no punches when it came to reviewing the usefulness of Deed of Gift (a.k.a. "DoG") matches, the previous one in 1988 and the likely 2010 event between 90-foot multihulls. The film also featured a good deal of the work of the first inductee, film-maker John Biddle, who covered 10 America's Cup matches during the 12-Meter era and gave roughly 3000 talks while showing his films around the country during a 41-year period. The film-maker learned of his selection before his untimely death last October, and was represented by his wife, Amy, his son, Scott, and daughter, Sophie, who said that her father was "delightfully surprised at his recognition by the Hall of Fame".
The second inductee was Tom Ratsey, personally responsible for the sails of seven challengers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. His firm, Ratsey & Lapthorn, was so dominant during that period that a company loft was launched on City Island, New York, which ended up supplying four defenders as well. The award was received by Cynthia Ratsey Young, several generations removed from the inductee, and her husband, Tom, who worked at the U.S. loft for several years and reported that among his other accomplishments, Mr. Ratsey had mastered sails made of custom woven cotton canvas, false seaming to control stretch, and fabric finishing to prevent mildew. The patents the sailmaker had secured for mitered sail construction, Tom said, indicated that he was on to "load-path sail construction in the 1890s".
Another Hall of Fame sailmaker, Tom Schnackenberg, introduced John "Chink" Longley, one of Alan Bond's crewmembers in five campaigns -- three unsuccessful challenges, the winning challenge aboard Australia II, and the unsuccessful defense candidacy of Australia III. Schnack, a Kiwi, who joined Bond's later campaigns as sailmaker, pointed out that John had also been instrumental in writing the first America's Cup protocol, which described how the next Cup would be held while the 1988 debacle was underway, and then assembling the world's yacht designers to write the rules for the first America's Cup class.
Chink, a tall Australian in his early 60s, spoke at length, telling a rolling series of entertaining stories ranging from his recollection of when "Bondie" first said he would challenge for the Cup (at Cowes, England, after Bond's Apollo beat Ted Turner's 12-Meter American Eagle), to the first campaign on Southern Cross ("Southern Cursed" he called it at one point). Of that 1974 campaign, he said Alan Bond, "of all people, complained that the young American tactican on Courageous, Dennis Conner, was too aggressive."
Of winning the Cup in 1983, he said the amazing thing was, "We won it in light air running," which was Australia II's weakest point of sail. He credited Schnackenberg's smaller, flatter spinnakers and the "terrible truth" the crew figured out about 20 years later. That was in 2003 when they all gathered, pieced together their recollections of each race, and figured out that they'd been lucky. Dennis Conner's Liberty had defended the downwind side of the course that almost always had more wind...and nine times out of ten the Australian crew would have lost splitting jibes as they did.
Self-deprecating as he was, Chink Longley finished up by talking about the Protocol he and others created in 1988. He said it gave everyone a "path to the future" and suggested that something of that sort might help with the current troubles. His conclusion was upbeat, quoting a comment made by his friend Laurent Esquier, in reference to the author of the Deed of Gift: "Don't worry. The spirit of George Schuyler will prevail, and the Cup will be alright."
Click here for other photos by Leighton O'Connor.