While there’s no denying that wingsails, multihulls and hydrofoils can deliver some jaw-dropping speeds and impressive imagery, anyone who has been following America’s Cup sailing for more than a few decades understands that something important was lost as racing matriculated from the 12-Meter class and then the nationality rule (1980-2003) was dropped. This is not to say that there haven’t been some truly exciting moments of Auld Mug racing in recent years-for example, the later half of the 34th America’s Cup-but the event’s recent migration from the windy waters of San Francisco Bay to Bermuda’s Great Sound has left plenty of fans feeling excommunicated from an event that they hold dear.
In the spring of 2015, Tom Ehman, a decorated sailor and longtime America’s Cup executive, was helping a friend (also an accomplished, lifelong sailor) deliver a brand new Tesla from LA to the Bay Area, and, naturally, the conversation turned to the Auld Mug, to San Francisco Bay, and to ways of bringing great sailing back to the West Coast. Ultimately, the two decided that a step back in time to the Cup’s halcyon days was in order. Their vision soon evolved toward “spirit of tradition” 12 Meters that would use some modern advancements (e.g., rigs and under carriages), but that would be strictly One Design boats.
The event would be contested yearly on San Francisco Bay-giving the event a permanent home-and a strict nationality rule, as well as an age and gender clause (read: under 30s, over 65s, and two female crewmembers), would be enforced. A prize purse would keep things interesting, as would the stipulation that the boats race with a minimal amount of electronics, thus returning big-boat racing to its purest form. Only the sail plans would be open to innovation and experimentation.
Ehman started pinging his idea off of other sailing luminaries on both coasts, and word got out that something exciting was brewing. Not surprisingly, given the current Cup landscape, interest immediately started waxing amongst sailors, spectators, and the media. Ehman contracted with Farr Yacht Design to draw up the One Design plans (Bruce Farr himself even temporarily returned from retirement to active duty to help with the project), and Ehman sorted out a respected builder (Westerly Marine), project manager (Randy Moreno), and other key positions, while also talking to prospective teams.
Soon, the announcement was made that the first race of the San Francisco Yacht Racing Challenge would take place on July 21 of 2017, several weeks after the last guns of the 35th America’s Cup will have sounded. Ehman is careful to explain that the SFYRC is not a replacement for the (wayward) America’s Cup, but rather an event that plucks the best attributes of beloved events such as the Cup, the Admiral’s Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race (with its One Design fleet and its centralized and shared boat-repair services), and even the Olympics (with its strict nationality rules) and aggregates them all into a event that will feature the classic look, feel and serious tactics of 12-Meter racing set within the world’s grandest sailing amphitheater.
Also key to Ehman’s idea is that the SFRYC will be far more affordable to participate in than the contest for the Auld Mug. Unlike Cup boats, which are typically one-regatta ponies, the SFYRC will use a fleet of identical 12 Meters that are being designed with a serviceable lifespan of at least 15 years. Also, build costs are a fraction of what a Cup boat fetches (initial estimates put the turn-key cost at $3M USD, but Ehman now believes that this will drop to $2M USD), making this an expensive-but-doable event for many individuals and syndicates.
“The boats will last at least 15 years-their competitive life should be much longer-and will be fit and strong,” said Ehman in a phone interview in mid-January of 2016. “I’m being careful to under-promise and over-deliver.”
While talk is cheap, the SFYRC is poised to take some bold steps in the next few months. According to Ehman, a minimum of five boats (hopefully six) will be built for the 2017 event, and build slots are rapidly filling.
The first teams are already forming up, and the sailing world can expect an announcement from an Italian-flagged team stating their formal intention to compete in the 2017 regatta in the next week. Ehman reports that he is also deep in serious discussion with teams from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the UK (being skippered by a high-profile sailor), Thailand, and Spain, plus three from the USA.
“For 2017, everyone is waiting to see what will happen,” said Ehman. “It will take a few years for people to realize how great this is, and how good it is for the sport. It will be the Wimbledon of sailing, which we sorely need. People miss the match racing, the symmetrical spinnakers, and the nationality rule. [The SFYRC] will take the best features of the sport that we grew up with.”
Stay tuned for more news from the SFYRC, as it unfurls!
May the four winds blow you safely home,