Denizens of Manhattan, and Hong Kong for that matter, sometimes forget that their hometowns are islands, tiny specks of land surrounded by water, which have become, thanks to their strategic position, the gateways to North America and China respectively, attracting adventurous spirits who have helped make them genuine world cities.
Unless you’re a ferry commuter crossing the water on a daily basis, however, you probably never give much thought to the idea that perhaps both cities’ status as pioneering hubs of creativity, where culture and commerce have thrived for centuries, is due to their geographical nature as entities untethered to the massive lands that lie just a short boat ride away, which have always loomed in the psyches of the two cities as vast expanses where things don’t happen as fast and where people tend to be followers rather than independent spirits.
Unlike places such as Sydney and Rio de Janeiro, where water is part of the towns’ iconography and you simply can’t escape it, New York is one of those places where it pops out at you almost out of nowhere, when you least expect it – perhaps as you roam the cobblestone streets of the West Village and decide to venture a little farther west to go on a stroll on the recently opened High Line, a park built on a former elevated railroad, or as you cross one of the city’s bridges, stunning features of architecture that connect Manhattan to the mainland.
New York’s “island-ness” was in full, glorious display early last month, when the Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series took place in the city. It’s hard to believe that with New York’s role as a world metropolis and the predilection of the East Coast set for sailing, it had been almost a century since the world’s most prestigious sailing event last came to town. The regatta was a prelude to the final competition, the 35th America’s Cup, to be held in Bermuda next June, pitting six countries against each other: the United States, Britain, France, Japan, New Zealand and Sweden.
The best spots in which to take in the action were the Brookfield Place plaza in downtown Manhattan, where VIPs had access to private lounges and free-flow Möet champagne bars, and the luxury yachts trailing the racing catamarans from a fair distance, but crowds eager to get a glimpse of the event also filled Manhattan’s southern tip and iconic spots such as Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
From families enjoying picnics in Battery Park to seasoned sailing fans feverishly analysing the action from carefully chosen vantage points, the audience was as diverse as the melting pot of people that makes New York so special. It’s indeed quite remarkable that the main sporting event of a discipline such as sailing, which can appear somewhat elitist, was actually open for all to see, no tickets needed, just a blanket, a bottle of wine and a pair of binoculars, if you really wanted to follow the catamarans as they vied to lead the way against the backdrop of the skyline of downtown New York.
Truth be told, enjoying the regatta from a Louis Vuitton-emblazoned yacht while sipping champagne was the best way to get close up to the proceedings – but hundreds of private vessels, small and big, were circling around the racecourse, contributing to the giddy celebration of sailing that took over New York for a memorable weekend As Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill said about the experience of racing in New York City, “You don’t get a better stadium than the Hudson River and the Manhattan skyline ... The entire offshore was packed from Tribeca to Battery Park. This is the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at a Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series Regatta.”
It’s this mix of glamour and populism – more than 100,000 viewers lined the Manhattan waterfront to witness the race – that makes the America’s Cup like a more accessible – and certainly more environmentally friendly – Formula 1 grand prix. While things have certainly changed since 1920, when the America’s Cup was last held in New York and Cornelius Vanderbilt competed against Sir Thomas Lipton, or even more recent times when John Fitzgerald Kennedy went sailing in wasp-y enclaves like Newport, the competition is still a perfect example of how technology, human skills and nature all have to collaborate for a good race. After all, no matter how technologically advanced the boats are – the catamarans feature 25-metre-high wing-masts and fly across the water at three times the speed of the wind – if the weather doesn’t cooperate and you don’t get those epic conditions that allow for a smooth ride, success is not guaranteed. And that’s something that every skipper has to keep in mind when approaching the race The weather was definitely on everyone’s thoughts in New York on the Sunday of the race as early morning showers threatened to ruin what turned out to be a chilly but sunny day with brisk winds, providing the key elements for a successful regatta. Although at one point Oracle Team USA seemed poised to win, in the end the trophy went to Emirates Team New Zealand, led by skipper Glenn Ashby.
It was a weekend of intense racing and lots of adrenaline: these high-tech catamarans are sleek speed machines that never fail to wow. Whether you’re a sailing enthusiast or a complete novice who can’t tell a rudder from a hull, admiring beautiful boats taking to the open seas and challenging each other with deft maneuvers that seem to defy the laws of physics is a reminder that human ingenuity and mother nature rarely come together in such a harmonious way to achieve true greatness.