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Bermuda's Redemption Depends on the Last Great Yacht Race

The America’s Cup is a monument to old-time excess — and it’s just what Bermuda needs.

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The America’s Cup is the monument to excess Bermuda deserves

The keystone event of competitive sailing lies a three-hour flight from Atlanta, precariously dropped in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Six teams representing countries from North America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania have descended on Bermuda in a display that combines elite technology and old-fashioned manpower in a battle for the oldest trophy in international sport.

Combined, they will spend more than half a billion dollars in service of the America’s Cup, an event reserved for the elite. Bermuda, one of the finest vestiges of the British Empire, has welcomed them with open arms. The country’s aim goes beyond the hospitality that courses through the island; this tiny dot, hundreds of miles from anything but water, hopes a major sporting event, no matter its niche, will be enough to save Bermuda.

The setting is idyllic. The island is shaped like a cursive lowercase j. Its Great Sound offers an expanse of protected crystal blue water, smooth at the surface despite the constant presence of swirling wind. Brightly colored homes jut from the undulating landscape, parsed by palm trees and the occasional Anglican Church. There's no place where you can't see the ocean. Occasionally, a rooster crosses your path, glances back at you indifferently, then crows indifferently.

This tiny island is an outlier in the long line of Cup hosts. The 2013 venue was San Francisco, a city situated in a Bay Area that holds 7.15 million people. Before that, it was Valencia, Spain -- home to one of Europe’s busiest ports and 2.5 million residents. Newport, Rhode Island, a popular former hosting site and 2017’s backup plan should Bermuda been unable to fulfill its duties, is the historic home of some of America’s greatest yachters and only hours from Boston and New York City.

Bermuda, meanwhile, is an island with 65,000 people stretched across 20 square miles. It’s approximately 665 miles from the U.S. coast. With average house prices stretching into the seven figures, it’s one of the most expensive places in the world to live. Unlike contemporary island vacation spots like the Bahamas or Jamaica, its prices freeze out all but the wealthiest travelers.

It is the perfect place for the America’s Cup.

The America’s Cup, the crown jewel of the world’s most expensive sport, feels right at home in Bermuda

Watching a regular sailboat lope through the water is relaxing. Watching an America’s Cup yacht carve through Bermuda’s translucent turquoise ocean is surreal. The wind gives these $10 million catamarans speed, raising them from shiny black hulls onto hydrofoils, the under-boat wings that allow them to rise above the waves and shred whitecaps. The move perches crews six feet above the water, reducing drag, increasing speed, and allowing skippers to make hairpin turns that seem psychically impossible from the shore.

The end result is a craft that hovers above the horizon, anchored to the ocean only by its foils and the dual rudders that steer it. The boats look like the offspring of the Flying Dutchman and a Formula One car. They float over the ocean at 30 knots per hour.

The foundation of the America’s Cup is innovation. Hydrofoils are the latest in a long line of technology that’s made boats faster and faster, often doubling the speed of the wind that serves as their only propulsion. It’s great for watching the sport on television, but the Cup’s biggest disadvantage had long been its inability to translate as a spectator sport from the docks.

Fortunately, Bermuda is prepared. The America’s Cup Village, constructed on newly-laid concrete jutting into the Great Sound where the races take place, is loaded with screens big and small that feature a live television broadcast filmed from a helicopter high above the water. It’s also filled with stages for upbeat island music, a host of MCs to pump up the crowd, an expansive playground, and plenty of upscale concessions.

The Village, as currently constructed, is marketed to a crowd several classes higher than your standard MLB or NFL game. The first refreshment stand you see upon entering the grounds is a Moet & Chandon tent, selling glasses of champagne for $25 a pop. Even in a country where the median home price is $1.2 million, this seems pricey.

Moet is one of two wines to have an outsized presence at the event. The other, a screw-top white called Mouton Cadet, paid handsomely for the privilege to be the race’s official wine. Cadet’s other sponsorships include golf’s Ryder Cup and the Cannes film festival.

Somewhere near the media tent, a lone ice cream truck, plastered with airbrushed pictures of Spongebob and Patrick, sticks out like a sore thumb. There isn’t a Bud Light tallboy in sight. The only American beer I can find is Narragansett’s Del’s Shandy, a choice that would be a clever nod to the race’s Newport background had the brewery not moved from Rhode Island to upstate New York several years prior [ed. - it’s since returned to Pawtucket and is now brewed in RI for the first time since 1980].

While the event caters to the 1%, it puts a stringent effort toward breeding new fans by catering to sailing neophytes. Panels and exhibitions throughout the grounds explain the race and boats with measured words that go far beyond “whose boat is faster.” The exhibits are well crafted, kid-oriented, and brings together first-time islanders and race veterans alike.

The divide between those two groups becomes much more apparent in the Club AC, the high-end lounge targeted toward the race’s corporate partners and big spenders. The club is brand new to the island, built atop what used to be a shallow patch of ocean. The wood-and-stone structure opens out to an impressive deck that backs up to the Cup’s finish line, allowing patrons the best view in the house. Everything, from the fixtures to the staff, has a shiny glow as though it had been covered with protective plastic just minutes before. The venue is, in a word, gorgeous.

As serving staff approaches with complementary bottles of Moet, a lone man with a ukulele turns popular songs maudlin in his effort to be the worst hype man of all time. As the saddest possible version of “Dancing on the Ceiling” plays, be-aproned waiters pass out tiny seafood appetizers to well-dressed guests.

The entire scene is the fanciest wedding reception you’ve ever seen. Instead of a bride shuffling with her father as Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s cloys “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” you’re watching two boats slice through water so blue you understand how doomed pilots mistake it for the sky.

To get to the section of the suite where fun sized bottles of champagne are passed around and cheerful bartenders pour dark and stormies, you must first pass through an array of sponsors; Panerai watches, Vineyard Vines apparel, and Sperry Topsiders first and foremost among them. The cheapest item for sale is a $65 t-shirt. An official 20”x24” print from the event costs $850.

A Vineyard Vines associate traps me as I pour through his racks, showcasing his knowledge of the brand by pointing out my whale-adorned light blue slacks. I neglect to tell him they were a $4 thrift store purchase, instead feigning interest until a woman who looks like she just stumbled 3d-printed from a Kentucky Derby pamphlet pulls him away.

These bold strategies pay off; Sperry has a booth where a kind gentleman customizes each pair of $100 shoes purchased with a design of your choice. The tattoo-gun hum of his engraver echoes throughout the building all afternoon.

The Club’s allure doesn’t end with its fixtures and accouterments. The staff, both male and female, is categorically beautiful. Each is at least a generation younger than the guests they’re serving. They appear the work of a slick promotional company that hires models to work as servers for upscale events.

A quick conversation with the attendants proves this false. They’re all connected to the island or the race in some way. Many are wives or girlfriends of crew members.

“I wanted to be part of the event. This is history for us,” Amanda, a local lawyer who volunteered in order to be part of the biggest sporting event to come to the island, tells me. “I think everyone is excited to be connected to an event with such a legacy.”

Another, a Texas A&M student named Elizabeth, serves as a rare transplant on the staff. She originally came to visit her father for summer vacation and worked her way into a role in the featured cabin. The duo, adorned in perfectly-fit breezy blue dresses and boat shoes, have well practiced smiles and disarming conversational skills.

While they may be volunteers, they are extremely good at their jobs. The ladies spend much of their day chatting with increasingly tipsy (and loud) baby boomers. The men pour drinks and clear off tables. Every one exudes the warmth and friendliness for which the island has come to be known.

Aside from the volunteers, the absence of actual Bermudians inside the suite is notable. The host of a pre-race morning show calls the country the most lively place he's ever been and receives a chorus of cheers. He then asks how many of us are from Bermuda. In a room of 150, maybe six people call back.

You have to head outside, past the waves of sales associates and security, to find islanders. The sterile luxury of the high rollers’ suite gives way to a more authentic experience on the race grounds. The grandstand, filled to capacity, buzzes with activity for the hour preceding the qualifying races until their conclusion. A deejay pumps up the crowd by giving brief play-by-play that leads into chants and cheers.

The difference between the two venues is significant. Club AC buzzes twice during ORACLE Team USA’s opening win over New Zealand, then fills the remaining two hours with a din of light conversation and clinking glasses. The grandstand, which ushers estimate is 70 to 75 percent Bermudian, increases in pitch on every turn. Boats gliding through the finish line, whether in first or second place, earn a warm homecoming after each race.

Outside the grandstand, a concrete park welcomes ticketed visitors with big screen broadcasts of the race, the manufactured energy produced by hours of bass-heavy pump-up music, and the chance to purchase $20 personal pizzas. The centerpiece of the grounds is a large, nautical themed playground surrounded by sponsored exhibits that allow children and their parents to crank hydraulic winches just like the sailors on the six competing teams do. The whole scene is like a county fair, only all the playground features are boats and all the American children you hear screaming will one day go to Choate.

Every Bermudian I speak to is a first-timer at the race, having skipped previous Cups in San Francisco and Valencia. They are all very happy to have the race in their backyard, citing everything from the event’s prestige to its economic impact on the island.

“I just think it’s great. It’s gorgeous to come up here. I’m just relaxing, enjoying the atmosphere,” Patricia Darrell, a Bermudian who has brought her grandchildren to the Village to share her first America’s Cup experience, tells me.

“It’s brought tourists here and united them with Bermudians in support of the sport. Look at these people around me.” She gestures behind her. “This man is from America. Would he have come here if not for the race?”

John, a sailing fan lured to the sport after watching it in his hometown of San Francisco four years earlier, shakes his head in confirmation.

“And now he knows what we have to offer. Now he can come back. Now he can tell people about Bermuda. It’s attracting the whole world. That’s something Bermuda needs because of our recession.”

Bermuda is betting this prestige sporting event will be enough to right an uneven economy

The country wasn’t immune to the economic downturn that affected the majority of the developed world at the turn of the last decade. Though tourism only makes up seven percent of the island’s revenue, its useful status as a tax haven has made it a popular destination for international business. Insurance companies specializing in insuring smaller insurers -- an ouroboros of investments, claims, and bad luck -- is the business of choice. Back in 2000, the New York Times estimated these companies could save some $7 billion in federal taxes just by moving their headquarters to the middle of the ocean. Being in a tropical paradise was just icing on the cake.

But as the late 2000s put a squeeze on American businesses, the economic downturn made a big enough splash for its ripples to reach Bermuda. From 2008 to 2014, an island with 64,000 people lost an estimated 6,500 jobs.

The nation had declared its six-year recession dead and buried in June 2015, suggesting an “embryonic recovery” was set to take place. However, negative growth reared its ugly head less than two months later. Unemployment rates remained a problem; a lack of jobs prevented an economic revival on the island. The Cup’s presence is meant to be the stimulus to counteract the shrinking pool of construction and banking jobs that have plagued Bermudians in recent years. Bermuda’s GDP continued to decline as recently as tail end of 2016.

“People out here are getting paid the same as they were 10, 15 years ago,” David McCann, a boat captain for Blue Water Divers Bermuda says. “But the cost of living keeps going up. Everything here is expensive.

“Being born here is a gift, but sometimes there’s a breaking point -- either you can afford to live here or you can’t.”

The country shelled out big in hopes the race would be the kind of financial boon to jumpstart its economy. Bermuda spent an estimated $77 million on the two-month event, a financial commitment every bit as important to race organizers as the perfect sailing conditions of the Great Sound.

The spending breakdown includes $25 million in infrastructure improvements -- including the racing grounds and the concrete jetty on which Club AC stands -- $12 million in operating costs, which covers the rangers patrolling the Sound to keep stray boats from floating on the course, and $15 million in sponsorship fees that allow “Bermuda” to earn a spot directly under “America’s Cup” on this year’s official neoprene beer coozies.

The accompanying economic impact report suggests this is a sound investment. Each of the six ships has had a large team presence on the island over the past two years, housing everyone from skippers to engineers as they gather information and acclimate to the swirling wind of the island. The race’s key demographic -- old money families steeped in the event’s nearly two centuries of tradition -- are the perfect market for a lineup of hotels with an average per-night cost of more than $600 during the race.

The two-month event piggybacks from the impact of a three-day America’s Cup World Series event that hit the island in 2015. Those races didn’t just serve as an introduction to the world of high-level yachting for Bermudians, it also brought an estimated $8.6 million in additional island spending -- including $2.6 million in hotel revenue.

However, this year’s event may not meet those lofty expectations. The 33rd America’s Cup in 2013 brought an estimated $550 million in economic activity to San Francisco and its outlying areas. While impressive, that was still a far cry from the $1.4 billion suggested back in 2010. The gold standard for economic infusion came in 2007, when Valencia saw a spending uptick of $1.1 billion as host port.

Still, the island stands to benefit from a major influx of cash from the comprehensive event. It’s hoping it could be much more. If ORACLE Team USA wins and decides to bring the Cup back to the island for its next iteration -- something several team members suggest is a strong possibility throughout the weekend -- Bermuda will double-down on that initial buy-in while having to make limited infrastructure improvements for a 2019 race..

While the event may be bringing new life to the Great Sound, some Bermudians have failed to see an impact across the country through the qualifying rounds. With two cruise ships docked at King’s Wharf each weekday, only Team USA hats and polo shirts can differentiate yachting fans from regular vacationers down at Horseshoe Bay. One lifeguard I flag down tells me the weekday crush at the beach has been roughly the same

“Sailing fans typically don’t make it down here during the day, I guess,” he tells me, staring through me to keep an eye on the throngs of tourists, several in American flag bathing suits, who have descended on the beach. “You notice a bit more traffic, more cabs, but it’s not a burden.”

"It's good for the island, you know," Derek, one of the aforementioned cab drivers reflects. "But it doesn't really affect us. Someone is getting paid, somewhere. The event is on one side of the island, so if you're not there, you might not notice."

Corporate synergy rules the races

If Bermuda was looking for an event with deep pockets, it landed a whopper. The America’s Cup lacks the commercial popularity to sustain itself, leading to a significant buy-in from teams with nine-digit racing budgets. These are the teams that don’t have to think twice about the cost of building state of the art training facilities they’ll tear down two years later.

The event’s prescripted catamaran yachts, a sleek blend of carbon fiber and smart technology, cost upward of $10 million before they’re even dropped in the Sound. That’s a tremendous price, but still a huge adjustment from the 113-foot trimarans of the 2010 race, whose costs were so prohibitive it helped limit participation to only two teams -- BMW ORACLE and Swiss champions Alinghi.

The spending in the stands is massive, but it fails to measure up to the output of the teams competing for the Auld Mug. The America’s Cup is not a self sustaining event; the sheer cost of constantly improving technologically gluttonous boats, by nature, cannot be. ORACLE co-founder Larry Ellison is the United States’ godfather, a man with enough money to save American yachting through investment and commitment.

While he lost his first attempt at the Cup, failing in the Challenger series of the 2007 event, he’s been undefeated since then. His presence has been the deciding factor that’s brought the silver chalice back to its familiar home, courtesy of the Golden Gate Yacht Club. Outside Magazine pegs his contribution to the team at anywhere between $250 and $300 million.

His buy-in is apparent just by looking at the team’s headquarters. Every team has shipping containers littering their grounds, but ORACLE Team USA’s are the only ones branded with official team logos. On the edge of the grounds, along the coast, is a small bar meant to entertain reporters and team associates. Televisions along the borders display precisely-edited promotional videos detailing the tremendous technical specs of the U.S. vessel. For a series of pop-up structures, the U.S. base is slickly warm and familiar, lined with trappings of home.

Traditional wisdom suggests it will cost upwards of $100 million to bring home the sterling silver ewer that serves as sailing’s top prize. Ellison and his team don’t have to bear that cost on their own this race. In an act of corporate synergy that would make Jack Welch blush, ORACLE Team USA has teamed with European aerospace giant Airbus to create a cross-continental tag team designed to expand the event’s impact beyond crystal blue water.

Airbus prides itself as the team’s “Official Innovation Partner,” and the work between the teams makes so much sense it’s amazing 2017 marks just the second race to take place under the union. The gist of the deal is simple; Team USA has access to the company’s comprehensive equipment testing facilities in Toulouse, which allows for some of the most complex aerodynamics trials in the sport.

“This is, first off, an undertaking of human resources. This is not a sponsorship. It is a partnership,” Airbus Head of Business Development Pierre-Marie Belleau explains. “All the technology we are developing can be carried across to Team ORACLE.”

OTU gets the advantage of steadily improving its technology at the speed of a 72,000-person European megalith. Airbus gets to use that data and apply it to its ever-expanding fleet of aircraft. The latest round of sharklets -- the molded wing-tips that jut upward into the sky on larger planes -- have designs lifted from the hydrofoils that push Jimmy Spithill’s craft above the Bermuda water and toward another America’s Cup.

Some 30 Airbus engineers work in a part-time capacity with the Americans; another four are full time. An even smaller staff has set up a base of operations on the island, collecting data in real time and reporting back the most efficient ways to improve.

Airbus’s contributions don’t stop there. The company’s loaned-out engineers also map the wind data of Bermuda’s Great Sound, building predictive models from 400 sensors located on the yacht’s wing. They also play a role in designing the hydraulic control systems that control every move the team makes.

“It really is a win/win partnership,” Belleau grins.

Airbus’s foray with OTU isn’t its first entrance into the world sailing market, but it is by far the most successful. The aviation giant had teamed with local favorite Groupama Team France and then with BAR Great Britain before finding a suitable connection with Ellison’s pet project. The reason behind the switch was no surprise.

“Being associated with a winner makes sense for everyone within Airbus,” COO and President Fabrice Bregier tells me. “We invested in big data to get these test results.”

An association with the American team also means more visibility in a market dominated by the company’s biggest competitor, Boeing. Bregier dismisses these claims, however.

“ORACLE Team USA is very big. They don’t need anybody, but they were open to a partnership … could they have been from a different nationality? Yes. We have challenges in America, we have invested in an assembly line in America -- this is a big market for us, which is challenging because this is the home turf of Boeing.

“But we equally could have had interest in China, which is our biggest market today.”

If Airbus wanted to get its name on a hull, Bregier contends, they would have been sponsors. If this was solely about diving into new markets, they would have found a sport with a greater foothold in Asia.

Instead, it was the combination of Team USA’s success, ORACLE’s big data backing, and the common sense sharing between the two that made a tech giant and an aerospace standby the gold standard in competitive sailing. The work is difficult, but it pays off. ORACLE Team USA, defending champions, boast the top record through qualifying, earning an extra point to take with them into the finals.

This kind of headline-grabbing partnership isn’t exclusive to Ellison’s lineup. The other teams on the island have also found ways to earn their turns in the spotlight off the water. Artemis Team Sweden is an up-and-comer in the racing world, their third-place finish this year marking their ascension to the Cup’s upper tier. Their success is a remarkable comeback from tragedy, as the team lost crewman Andrew “Bart” Simpson after its boat suffered a catastrophic failure and capsized off the coast of San Francisco in 2013.

While their resilience shines through in the team’s results on the water, the team’s public relations work from Bermuda paints a distinct U.S./Europe divide between the sport’s top teams.

While Artemis’s main goal is bringing Sweden its first-ever America’s Cup, its secondary cause is sustainability.

“Artemis Racing is particularly proud of its land use at Morgan’s Point. With the help of its partner, Caroline Bay, Artemis Racing has taken an abandoned US Navy base and turned it into the team’s base of operations on the island,” team head of media relations David Tyler recites. “The building didn’t require any land excavations or major ground works, and whenever the team decides to leave Bermuda, the base can be packed up and relocated without a trace, or recycled for another use.”

That’s not the only step they’ve taken in their “leave no trace” approach to the 2017 Cup. The Swedes have also partnered with Bluewater, a Scandinavian water filtering company whose aim is to ensure all team waste is recycled. Artemis proudly boasts a recycling system that produces 154 gallons of fresh water per hour -- something especially useful during the eight week drought that falls over the island leading up to the finals.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Artemis is a humble program focused solely on environmentalism. The team has also made its own significant buy-in when it comes to constant improvement on the water. When pressed if the Swedes subscribe to the “$100 million per Cup” rule of thumb that accompanies the race, Tyler avoids talking specifics but his answer remains clear.

“It’s fair to say that it’s a competitive budget.”

National teams aren’t always what they appear

Cross-continental partnerships aren’t new to the America’s Cup. All six teams compete for national pride, albeit unconventionally. Every boat has a national flag atop its wing, but the racing rosters themselves are a marriage of Olympic sport and the free market. It’s no mistake the Louis Vitton logo flies higher than the national banner on each yacht. Citizenship is no requirement to compete on a country’s crew.

America’s general manager, Grant Simmer, is an Australian who served as navigator for the Aussies’ 1983 win that broke a 122-year run of U.S. dominance. Spithill, his skipper, broke into the game at age 19 with Young Australia in 1999. Artemis Team Sweden is dotted with British, Australian, and Italian sailors. Softbank Team Japan has only three native Japanese crewmen.

The race for dominance makes strange bedfellows and breeds rivalry. English national Sir Ben Ainslie is the most accomplished sailor of his generation after leaving five Olympiads with four gold medals and a silver. 2017 marks his first appearance as Great Britain’s skipper after spending previous Cups with New Zealand and OTU. Dean Barker steered New Zealand to its second America’s Cup in 2000 as the Kiwis reserve helmsman. After being forced out of his role with the team, he’s now in Bermuda serving as Japan’s skipper, helmsman, and CEO.

Of the six teams competing for this year’s Auld Mug, only two -- Great Britain and France -- can claim homegrown skippers.

In the end, this blending is endemic of the event itself. The America’s Cup fills several roles. It brings several cultures -- or at least a very specific subsection of those cultures -- together in service of a storied race foreign to landlocked states. There’s a certain type of fan so invested in yachting he or she will follow the Cup to a reef-surrounded patch of land 700 miles deep in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. For them, Bermuda is paradise -- the ideal setting for like-minded individuals to sip Moet and discuss catamarans.

For Bermuda, the race is an unexpected celebration of the island. Though there’s no local team, the sailors, engineers, and crew that have called the island home have become part of a welcoming community that has exuded warmth throughout the Cup. Most of the locals in the stands have personal connections with the team’s they’ve come to know over the course of years.

Beyond community, the America’s Cup is a play to get the country’s finances back on track. The event is a two-month bounty of revenue and exposure officials hope will spark a larger trend and stem a recession that has lasted nearly a decade.

As the sun turns bronze on a beautiful Saturday evening, the qualifying rounds come to an official, but not largely effective, end. France, with just two wins in its return to global racing’s biggest event, is the sole team eliminated. Though ORACLE Team USA wins the group, the team’s status as defending champions meant the team could have spent the opening rounds fishing from the sides of their catamaran and still wound up in the final two. That leaves New Zealand, Great Britain, Sweden, and Japan left to compete for the sport’s biggest prize.

The Challenger Playoffs eventually whittle Great Britain and Japan from the ranks. Three days later, Sweden is forced to pack up its environmentally-forward camp after falling to New Zealand. As many predicted, and for the second straight Cup, sailing’s biggest prize will come down to a battle between America and New Zealand.

Most Bermudians are rooting for the former.

“I think a lot of Bermudians have their fingers crossed the cup will stay here,” McCann, the local boat captain says. “It would mean a lot for us, having an event like this to call ours.”

My day in the Village ends with one last conversation. Kevin, a security guard who has seen every day of the Cup qualifiers from several different vantage points, welcomes me to take one last tour of the emptying grandstand before offering his option.

“It’s definitely a different atmosphere. We have big events like 24th of May [Bermuda Day, which features a road race], but we have nothing of this magnitude, really, or going on for that amount of time. But it’s good.

“It is definitely upscale for an event. I go to my share of sports events on the island. I’ve never been to one where they’re selling $250 champagne or $30 for a drink.”

I thank him for taking the time to speak with me, though a polite crowd seems to be putting little strain on his efforts to keep the peace. Kevin nods, and tells me “it was a pleasure. Have a good--” He stops as though he’s forgotten something, smiles, and raises one finger to slyly point toward me.

“Have a Bermudaful day.”