Sailing and Yacht Racing

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SAILING AND YACHT RACING. The Dutch brought their sailing traditions to New York during the seventeenth century. In 1939 the first American yacht club, the Detroit Boat Club, was founded. John C. Stevens founded the New York Yacht Club, the most famous club and one that has profoundly influenced yacht racing, in 1844.

Early sailboat racing pitted boats against each other on the basis of weight with a formula for handicapping at the finish line. In 1906 the Dixon Kemp Rule and the International Rule established a series of specifications under which racing boats fall into classes: six-meter, eight-meter, and twelve-meter. Each class has a design formula and specifications, with some variation allowed. The objective of standardization in construction, a movement led by Nathaniel G. Herreshoff among others, intended to reward the most skillful skipper.

In 1866 the American newspaper magnate James Gordon Bennett made history when he won the first transatlantic match race from Sandy Hook, Connecticut, to Cowes, Isle of Wight, England, on the schooner Henrietta. The race took thirteen days to complete. Alfred Johnson in 1876 completed the first single-handed transatlantic crossing in a six-meter boat. Francis Chichester attracted world attention when he won a single-handed race that was part of a series sponsored by the London Observer starting in 1960.

In an important benchmark for yacht racing, members of the New York Yacht Club challenged the British to a race around the Isle of Wight in 1851. The New York Club won the race on the schooner America. The trophy from this race was donated to the New York Yacht Club and became known as the America's Cup, the origin of the most prestigious sailboat racing event in the world. Every America's Cup race until 1983 was won by an American yacht, placing the United States at the head of world yacht racing. The American Dennis Connor is among the most successful skippers with four America's Cup victories. Other noteworthy personalities associated with yacht racing are Harold S. Vanderbilt, Bus Mosbacher, and Ted Turner. However, Connor has also been one of the most controversial yacht racers, challenging rules and creating controversy, especially during races in 1995.

In 1983 the Australians took the cup, and in the rest of the 1980s and the 1990s the race entered a period of controversy and turmoil. New technology, especially lighter materials and radical design techniques, including a controversy over the use of multihill yachts, created bitter conflicts and charges of design espionage and even sabotage of rivals' vessels. Moreover, the great costs associated with designing, building, and crewing yachts for such racing brought increasing corporate sponsorship and money to the sport. In 1987 the United States retook the cup only to lose it to New Zealand in 1995. New Zealand held on to the cup in the 2000 race.

In 1992 the new International America's Cup Class (IACC) was introduced. This class of boat is larger than the twelve-meter boats but with a much larger sail area, roughly 40 percent more accomplished, largely through higher masts. The objective of this new class was to create a more level playing field for syndicates involved in the America's Cup, including a boat that would sail faster at all points of sail, thus creating more exciting races. New design specifications and new dimensions for the yachts were established.

In addition to the America's Cup other ocean races and prestigious events, including the Whitbread Round the World Race, the Newport-Bermuda Race, the Fastnet Cup, the Golden Globe Race, the Sydney-Hobart, the Honolulu, and the Transpacific Race, have become prominent. As boats became lighter and competition more frequent and fierce, racers and racing organizations took greater risks with weather, resulting in increasing deaths and loss of yachts in storms. This led in the 1990s to a reexamination of racing practices and calls for reform of the rules.

Two basic types of sailboat races, "closed course" and "point-to-point," exist. The America's Cup and most small boat races, both on inland waters and on close-to-shore ocean racing, are closed-course races, usually consisting of a marked, triangular, timed course with elaborate right-of-way and other rules. Most transoceanic and global circumnavigation races, such as the Fastnet Cup, are point-to-point.

A different type of yacht racing has been part of the Olympic Games, where one-design, smaller sailboats competed beginning in 1900. At present nine classes of Olympic sailboats range in length from 12 feet, 1 inch (3.7 meters) to 26 feet, 9 inch (8.2 meter) vessels. Modern sailboats are lightweight and generally are manufactured of fiberglass to exact specifications. Sailboat racing classes are designated by the International Olympic Committee on recommendations of the International Yacht Racing Union, which was founded in 1907 to create a consistent set of international yacht racing standards and rules. They have included Star, Dragons, Finn, Laser, Soling, and Flying Dutchman class boats. Windsurfing, sailing on small sailboards, was added to the Olympics in 1984. The 2000 Olympics included three classes for men, Mistral or Sail-board, Finn, and 470; three classes for women, Mistral, Europe, and 470; and five mixed classes, Soling, Star, Laser, Tornado, and 49er.


Bavier, Bob. The America's Cup: An Insider's View—1930 to the Present. New York: Dodd, Meade, 1986.

Johnson, Peter, ed. Yachting World Handbook. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1973.

Jourdane, John. Icebergs, Port and Starboard: The Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race. Long Beach, Calif.: Cape Horn Press, 1992.

Steffen W.Schmidt

See alsoOlympic Games, American Participation In .