America's (corporate) Cup race

Nine yachts from five nations bumped bows and set saisl on the sapphire-blue waters off Newport this summer in a $10 million quest for a $6,000 silver goblet that cannot hold water.

This is the america's Cup, the oldest international sports contest and, today , one of the most expensive ones, too.

As the US boat Freedom tries to defend the cup this week against foreign challenger Australia, the strong scent of commercialism is in the salty air of this historic seaport.

As yet, STP or Head stickers do not adorn the slender 60-foot yachts. But such items as official cup T-shirts and expensive nautical art are everywhere along Newport wharves.

The competition began its 1980 races under the shadow of professional sailors and multinational corporations eager to take part. No less than three top US commercial sailmakers, for instance, are aboard the likely victor, Freedom.

This year's races, more than in 1977, have been a difficult mark-rounding for an elite event which, for 129 years, has been the province of wealthy amateur sailors.

Even the staid New York Yacht Club, which has kept a tight grip on this private event over the decades, offered "official" sponsorships to companies for the contest, including the parties at Newport mansions. The sponsors, ranging from Porsche cars to Fujinon binoculars, bought ads in the club's official $3 program.

The club also announced this year that foreign challengers will be allowed to use any yachting technology available anywhere in the world, except in building the hull. This "equalizer" rule will mean other nations will be shopping in the United States for the new exotic sail cloth and finest mechanical equipment that help power the giant sloops. It is expected the Japanese will finally invade the cup and no one knows what to expect. "By the evolution to technology worldwide, it is no longer practical to identify the national source of all components in a 12-meter yacht," the cup committee said.

But it is the heightened publicity, as well as a renewed sense of national pride, that has put the most pressure on this triennial tryst of 30-ton craft on Rhode Island Sound. Contenders say they feel compelled to build more expensive boats and put more time into tuning up both boats and crew in order to win this most coveted sailing prize in the world.

"There's just no way that the United States can keep the cup in the future without corporate backing," says Russell Long, the young American skipper whose boat Clipper lost its bid to be the US defender.

Going rate for a new yacht is now about $700,000. That's plenty more than the $20,000 spent by a syndicate of five New York businessmen who built the yacht america for the 1951 race off England's coast that started the international contest.

Ironically, US defender boat Freedom is the least commercial contender in this year's race. Backed by an old-style syndicate of rich and small donators, the yacht serves under the sponsoring maritime college at Fort Schuyler, N.Y., which used the campaign to introduce sailing to hundreds of youngsters.

Still, the Freedom campaign took two years and $2.5 million, a precedent set for future cup tries. And the crew lives at one of the palatial Newport mansions (Seaview) and has received thousands of dollars in corporate gifts, from $265 Paul Stuart blazers to a Hewlett-Packard computer.

The most innovative hustling of money for a cup campaign came from Russell Long, the 24-year-old son of a wealthy shipping magnate who found a couple of dozen sponsors.

Pan American World Airways agreed to put up an estimated $100,000 and got the right to select the name of Long's yacht -- Clipper -- which just happens to be the nickname of the airline's fleet.

Most conspicious in consumption of the cup's free publicity have been the Swedes. The Nordic nation launched a worldwide, 16-city "Swedish Challenge Expo" that was pure marketing of Swedish products. This project by 22 companies gave $1.5 million in support to skipper Pelle Peterson and his crew on the yellow 12-meter Sverige. "We lack the eccentric millionaires of america," said one Swede in Newport. Graced with the presence of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Sylvia, the Swedish boat failed to win the challenger's berth by an embarrassing margin.

Also failing this year were the French under Baron Marcel Bich, whose ballpoint pen empire has spent untold millions in four cup challenges since 1970 .

The Australians, meanwhile, are back in Newport again under Alan Bond, the multi-millionaire land developer from Perth. He is using this year's challenge not only as a chance to win the cup but as a vehicle to sell more land.

Perhaps not since 1899 has the America's Cup seen its name used for purposes other than the pure pleasure of winning an international sail race. In that year, the British challenger, Sir Thomas Lipton, reportedly used the campaign as a way to sell more tea.

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