How the America’s Cup gave rise to world’s most elegant yachts

Written by: Simon de Burton

With the 37th America’s Cup a mere two years away, a small number of the world’s billionaires are busily pouring vast quantities of cash into building the AC75 monohull racing yachts that will skim across the sea off Barcelona at speeds of up to 60 mph, all in pursuit of a trophy colloquially called ‘the Auld Mug’ that the winner will be allowed to take home, but not keep.

The America’s Cup is possibly the most bizarre and arcane contest in the history of international sport, having started at the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851 when the Earl of Winton, Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, gracefully invited members of the fledglingNew York Yacht Club to pop across the pond and make the most of the facilities.

What he hadn’t intended was that the guests would want to race – something they wouldn’t usually be allowed to do as competition was only allowed to take place between RYS members.

So as not to disappoint the visitors, the ruddy-faced aristocrats who formed the RYS committee decided to establish a race called the 100 Guinea Cup which anyone could enter – and the Americans duly came, saw and conquered with their yacht ‘America’.

The ‘America’s Cup’ was subsequently founded in 1857, with the RYS confident that the events of six years before were mere fluke and that the rightful order of things would soon be restored with an easy win.

In the event, the Americans were again victorious, and continued to defend the ‘Auld Mug’ for a remarkable 132 years until finally being beaten in 1983 by the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s ‘Australia II’. It was the longest winning streak ever recorded in sport.

AC Endeavour
12th January 1934: the construction of the America’s Cup challenger yacht ‘Endeavour’ for British aircraft designer and sportsman Thomas Sopwith, in Gosport (Getty).

The 37th running of the event will see 2021 winner Emirates Team New Zealand defend and, as mentioned, ‘challengers’ will spend vast sums trying to defeat it – even when rules to cut costs were introduced for the 2013 event, the teams were reported as having spent north of $100m just to get to the start line.

But while such extravagance might seem like the typical peacocking associated with the super-rich of the 21st century, it’s a fact that the America’s Cup has been a major driver of boating innovation.

While the raw power, staggering speed and high-tech wizadry that is all part and parcel of the AC 75s that currently compete, some might prefer the rather more civilised craft created for the America’s Cup races of the 1930s – such as the fabulous J-Class yacht ‘Rainbow’ commissioned by railroad tycoon Harold S. Vanderbilt.

It’s widely agreed that the single-masted ‘J-boats’ built to the specifications of American naval architect Nathanael Herreshoff’s ‘Universal Rule’ (by which a boat’s eligibility to compete in the America’s Cup was determined) are among the most elegant yachts on the water.

The Rainbow (Image: Jeff Brown)
The Rainbow (Image: Jeff Brown)

Vanderbilt used Rainbow to successfully defend the America’s Cup in 1934 – yet six years later the beautiful 129-footer was scrapped with steel from the hull being cut-up and re-purposed to help the war effort.

Indeed, of the 10 J-Class yachts completed during the 1930s for ultra-rich owners such as Vanderbilt, Sir Thomas Sopwith and Sir Thomas Lipton, a mere three survive – Endeavour, Shamrock V and Velsheda.

But as the world’s tally of contemporary billionaires grows,interest in J-boats has reached an all-time high and there are now as many ‘continuation’ versions as there were originals.

And they include the remarkable replica of ‘Rainbow’ pictured here. She was completed in 2012 by Dutch builder Holland Jachtbouw, not for a customer but for the yard’s founder, Chris Gongriep, who had the foresight to combine Rainbow’s classic looks with a silent, hybrid propulsion system capable of running the yacht sails-down for up to four hours on battery power alone.

Gongriep died in late 2016 at the age of 70, since when Rainbow has belonged to an American owner who keeps her berthed in Mallorca and, despite visiting only occasionally, ensures she is fully crewed and seaworthy at all times.

For the past four years Rainbow has been captained by Matthew Sweetman, a performance yacht skipper with decades of experience who welcomed me onto Rainbow’s pristine deck during the Palma boat show in May.

As ‘workplaces’ go, it’s difficult to imagine one more appealing because, while Rainbow maintains the exquisite lines of her ancestor from the outside, it is a very different story ‘down below’.

Whereas the original was a stripped-out vessel designed solely for winning races, the 21st century Rainbow is equipped to the standards of the most discerning Edwardian gentleman.

Acres of highly polished mahogany panelling lines the walls, there’s a full-sized dining room and accommodation for up to eight guests in three cabins consisting of a sumptuous master suite, double and twin cabins and two pull-down ‘Pullman’ berths.

Below deck in the Rainbow
Below deck in the Rainbow

Since the weather was more than favourable, Sweetman and I were served lunch on deck (at another burnished mahogany table), where the gentle chink of Rainbow’s rigging, the soft lapping of water against her gleaming hull and the glint of sunlight on highly polished hardware lent the occasion a timeless appeal.

But it was during a relaxing, post-prandial sail that the true glory of the J-Class design revealed itself. No sooner had a good portion of Rainbow’s10,000 square feet of available sail been hoisted to send her cutting through the water than lesser vessels converged from far and wide to drink in her beauty.

Heeled over and with her bow showering spray that turned to cascading jewels in the sunlight, she felt like a boat that could make even the most level-headed of people contemplate a move from land lubber to full-time ocean dweller – especially in light of the sumptuous arrangements below deck.

And for anyone who fancies making such a move, Rainbow is well and truly for sale – to the first person with a spare 6.9 million euros and a promise to maintain her in the immaculate condition that she has remained in since new.

With a top speed of little more than ten knots, she won’t win you the next America’s Cup. But it’s difficult to imagine a better place to spectate from, especially with a gin and tonic in hand….

Rainbow is for sale with Monaco yacht broker Y.Co.

The original article was written by Simon de Burton and appeared in the Spectator Life.

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