Writing the wrongs: America’s Cup in for facelift

The New Zealand guardians of the America’s Cup are about to rewrite a historic wrong.

In 2003 and 2007, an over-zealous Swiss engraver etched the results of Alinghi’s Cup wins onto the world’s oldest sporting trophy – but in a bigger font than any before them.

Now that the Auld Mug is back in the hands of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, there is a small hitch – there is no more room left to chronicle Emirates Team New Zealand’s latest victory over Oracle Team USA.

The ornate silver ewer, now 169 years old, is a tangible encyclopaedia of America’s Cup history. Every race ever sailed in the 35 matches of the Cup, since 1851, is recorded on the trophy.

Two extra silver tiers have been added to the bottom of the Cup – in 1958 and 1992 – to allow for more engraving. But thanks to Alinghi’s outsized inscriptions, there’s no more space to record the nine races of the 2017 America’s Cup.

The RNZYS commodore, Steve Mair, says a few possible solutions have been tossed around. But the most logical would be to re-engrave the entire bottom section, to match the original font on the rest of the Cup.

Out of courtesy, he says, he will contact previous trustees (or winners) of the America’s Cup to ask if they agree with the idea, or would like to suggest an alternative.

“Adding another section would not be sustainable. After a certain period of time, you can’t have it 20 feet tall,” says Mair. The Cup has already grown to 1.1m high and weighs over 14kg. “We have to figure out a way to future-proof it.”

The super-sized Swiss engraving on the America's Cup. Photo: supplied

Tom Ehman, the former vice-commodore of the Golden Gate Yacht Club which looked after the Cup from 2010 until June this year, said they had also considered replacing the Alinghi inscription, but decided to simply rotate that section to the back of the Cup where it would be less obvious.

The GGYC also got Oracle’s boatbuilders to create a new base for the Cup, made from carbon fibre and resembling a winch drum.

If the Squadron decides to go ahead with re-engraving the bottom section of the Cup, Mair says it’s most likely to be removed from the upper trophy, and “hand delivered” to Garrard & Co – the former crown jeweller in London, which originally produced the ewer in 1848.

Two other famous engraving blunders, that have survived 166 years, will have to stay.

The history of the silver ewer is as fascinating as the competition itself. When it was first made by an English silversmith, it was not as a yachting trophy.

Garrards say it was one of six identical baroque pitchers, created as wine ewers to be centrepieces on the dining tables of the prosperous.

But its transformation into one of the world’s greatest sporting prizes began when Lord Anglesey, a hero of the Battle of Waterloo and a keen sailor, bought the wine ewer and presented it to his club, the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Three years later, the Squadron put up the ewer as the prize for a race open to “yacht clubs of all nations”, during the 1851 World’s Fair in London. The race around the Isle of Wight, held on August 22, 1851, was of course won by the grand schooner America, which had sailed across the Atlantic to show off American boat-building prowess.

John C. Stevens, the commodore of the newly-formed New York Yacht Club, sailed home with the “Cup of One Hundred Sovereigns” (although the American victors would mistakenly engrave it as the Hundred Guinea Cup). Regardless, it would become better known for the boat that won it.

Auckland-based America’s Cup lawyer Hamish Ross also points out another glaring error in that original inscription. The names of all 18 competitors entered in that very first race are listed – except for Aurora, the boat that finished second. That fits perfectly with the legendary quote delivered as Queen Victoria, an intrigued onlooker, apparently asked who was coming second to America. “Ah your Majesty”, the signal-master supposedly said, “there is no second”.

When the Cup arrived in the United States, it was suggested that it be melted down, and made into six silver medallions for the members of the America syndicate. Had that vote been carried, there would be no exhilarating, antagonistic and melodramatic boat race that captures the sailing world’s (and everyday Kiwis’) attention every four years.

Instead, Commodore Stevens kept the gleaming silver trophy in his home in Washington Square. Ross, an expert in Cup history, says Stevens held a banquet at his home and announced he wanted to deed the trophy to the New York Yacht Club. But it wasn’t until after Stevens died in 1857 that it was finally handed over, along with the original handwritten Deed of Gift, as “a challenger trophy to promote friendly competition among nations”.

When the New York Yacht Club finally lost the America’s Cup to Australia II in 1983, they decided to fill the old wine jug with champagne to drown their sorrows. “They kept pouring and pouring the champagne in, and then looked down at their shoes and saw it had all leaked out the bottom of the Cup,” Ross says.

It turned out the trophy had no bottom. Today the neck of the Cup is plugged, so victors can drink the equivalent of a beer can from its lip.

This won’t be the first time the RNZYS has sent the America’s Cup to Garrards. There was the infamous hammer attack by Benjamin Nathan at the Squadron in 1997, when the bulbous centre of the ewer was badly dented and its elegant top buckled. It took three months for the damage to be painstakingly repaired – a job Garrards carried out for free.

But before anything is changed this time, the Cup will embark on a road trip around the country’s yacht clubs, starting in October.

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