Boating is perhaps the most romantic of all sports, with its aura of long days on deck, of old sea salts' talk, of rope-related knowhow and words like "keelhaul" and "stern," its echoes of Melville and Popeye and of Robert Shaw's character in the movie Jaws. ("I'll get the shark fer yeh, Chiefie!")
But competitive yachting is a pastime involving leisure and privilege (you have to have a boat, after all, and the time to race it) as well as hard work, danger, and, yes, a dash of that old-time historical romance. The Dutch are said to have invented the sailboat race during the sixteen-hundreds. As with competitive riflery, which took off in the period after the Civil War in America as a direct result of Americans' need for better marksmanship skills, or hunting, which developed as a sport alongside the young country's need to better feed and clothe itself as it expanded westward, sailboat racing probably owed something of its emergence to the sudden need for good seamen in a Europe that was expanding through colonialism and trade.
The Dutch, active participants in the colonial and mercantile economies of the seventeenth century (they were among the many societies then attempting to wrest the United States away from Indians), would have needed well-trained sailors. Why not make an art, a sport, out of the teaching of skills that necessity itself required? What better way to ensure that those skills are widely diffused?
But if the Netherlands provided the seed, it was England - that country's colonial-era rival - that acted as soil. Custom-built sailboats - designed for leisurely racing and called "yachts" - were first crafted here. The sport's popularity in England made a similar catching-on inevitable in the United States, where yacht clubs proliferated throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The America's Cup, yacht racing's premier event, arose in New York City in 1851, in response to a challenge to just such a club (the New York Yacht Club, which dominated the yearly event until 1983).
Yacht races today take place at many distances; boats of unlike design are handicapped to factor in the "natural" cruising speed of each sort. In a racing competition - known as a "regatta" - many smaller races are aggregated together; the boat that performs best in them all is designated the overall winner. Courses are often triangular, with buoys marking the "lanes" of the course. Short-haul dinghy boat races can even be seen at the Summer Olympics.
But the most prestigious events tend to be long-haul, open-sea voyages: point-to-point distance contests threatened at every turn by bad weather, unexpected delay, and all the dangers of life at sea. These races pose more danger than do many endurance contests - for a runner, for example, to expose him- or herself to equal hazards, she or he would have to participate in ultra marathon races over hazardous terrain. Open sea voyages thus demand particularly committed sailors who are willing to risk death for their sport.
Some events even make the ultimate imaginable demand: that the racers, like Ferdinand Magellan himself, circumnavigate the earth (these are called "round-the-world" races, fittingly enough). Some famous offshore races include the Sydney to Hobart race (Australian), the West Marine Pacific Cup, the Bermuda Race, and the around-the-world Global Challenge and Volvo Ocean Race. Upping the ante a bit, single-handed offshore yacht races are growing in popularity (the VELUX 5 Oceans Race is a descendant of the 1968-69 Sunday Times-sponsored singlehand race that inaugurated round-the-world racing), despite some questions about legality: international navigation rules require that every sailing ship have a person keeping a lookout at all times, which is hard to do when you're the only one navigating, cooking, sleeping, etc.
To race yachts, you need (a) a boat, (b) a crew, (c) a somewhat unrestricted waterway, and (d) at least one other competitor with items (a) and (b). In other words, yachting is the sort of pastime associated with privilege, class, and the ability to enjoy the finer things in life; fittingly, some of the best writing on American leisure sailing has come from the typewriter of that conservative doyen, William F. Buckley. (Think also of Buckley's old antagonist, the impeccably refined Gore Vidal, titling his own memoir Point-to-Point Navigation.) Suffice to say that the ability to truly enjoy a yacht is like the ability to enjoy a fine liqueur, a good cigar, a well-tuned sports car: it takes a certain amount of leisure and, despite the speeds involved, contemplation.
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