The America's Cup World Series Portsmouth is providing an impressive dress rehearsal for what the city could do if Sir Ben Ainslie 'brought the Cup home'
How would it feel if Sir Ben Ainslie were to succeed in his grand ambition to ‘bring the Cup home’?
The America’s Cup World Series Portsmouth answered that today. It provided a spectacle of stadium racing close to shore that tens of thousands flocked to and recreated in miniature some of the carnival spirit that characterised the London Olympics in 2012.
For those who remember the seaside razzmatazz of the sailing Olympics in Weymouth, the similarities were striking: from the signage to the shuttle buses, the helpful volunteers everywhere along the route to the special platforms to give disabled spectators a ringside view of the action, every detail seemed to have been thought of.
The sailing area, with the finish line immediately offshore, was visible to everyone, paid ticket or not. It was a grand family day out in sunshine, with a wonderful atmosphere, a real sense of occasion and two exciting races. Everyone I could see was smiling.
For the America’s Cup there is no going back. We have had foiling and stadium racing since San Francisco, yet many long time followers still grumble that it is all a disastrous mistake. It has been a persistent background noise to every change made to the Cup format, but the mass popularity of this weekend proves that it is little more than the generational sound of heydays whooshing past.
Seeing how close the action came to spectators in Portsmouth, who could ever again wish for offshore races far out of sight of land, or a procession of lumbering monohulls separated by fractions of knots of speeds?
With such wide differences in speeds between displacement and foiling modes, the foiling AC45fs create so many passing opportunities and plot twists that you can never be quite sure of the outcome of any race. Ben Ainslie’s Land Rover BAR came from last place to finish 1st in the opening race today; Emirates Team New Zealand recovered from a shocking hobbyhorse gybe to win race 2.
We have seen this short format often before – the Extreme Series pioneered this racing style. It works. Half an hour is plenty when positions change on every leg of the race; and two races in an afternoon is perfectly satiating for family entertainment.
Those who argue that sailing is too complicated and hard to understand miss the point. Failing to appreciate the technicalities is no impediment to enjoying this type of racing. It lends itself as much to simple interpretation as geeky knowledge and short, sharp races favour the casual viewer.
Earlier this year, a former doyen of the event made the caustic accusation that the America’s Cup would become “a vulgar beach event smelling of sunscreen and French fries”. Well, you might think, if you were that sort of person, that the prediction came true in Portsmouth.
People strolled round with beers, boxes of pizzas and fish and chips. Children clutched ice creams. The waterfront was packed with people sitting on collapsible chairs, surrounded by flasks and picnic bags. The Moët & Chandon champagne bar was pretty empty.
It looked like what it was, a family day out in real life.
There was excellent VIP hospitality for sponsors and their guests (thank you Bermuda…) but organisers had been clever enough to put these marquees well away from the main areas and make a separate entrance so no one would feel the privileged were being fast-tracked past.
This is only proper if sailing wants to be more popular, and especially if it relies on a measure of public funding, as most of these ACWS events will do.
So should the America’s Cup ever be won by Land Rover BAR (and the opening results are encouraging), this weekend’s dress rehearsal proves a point. The Cup could be successfully hosted with comparatively little variation on the formula we’ve seen this weekend. And it would be great. Well done Sir Keith Mills’s Team Origin, and Portsmouth.
The Auld Mug paid a visit to Portsmouth today, complete with ‘her’ retinue of bouncers wearing white gloves and her special Louis Vuitton suitcase. Here’s me with what the trophy they call the ‘old lady’ (no jokes about which is which, if you please….)