Whenever a country enters a boat in the America's Cup for the first time, it's as if a pretty new face has arrived at a rather boring party. Everyone perks up. The Australians had that effect in 1962, the French in 1970 and the Swedes, with their beautiful Sverige, in 1977. Throughout the early weeks of summer the newcomer is a welcome distraction. Her wardrobe is discussed. Her style is assessed. Her dance card is full. For a while, at least, she is the belle of the nautical ball.
This America's Cup year, the new girl in Newport is a stunner. Her name is Azzurra, she's from Italy, and when she's put in the water at Newport this week, the old town will find it has never seen anything like her. She has style, she has grace, and her credentials are strictly Almanach de Gotha. She was conceived on the Costa Smeralda, the Aga Khan's resort empire on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, designed in the fashionable Rome studio of the young naval architect Andrea Vallicelli and built in a shipyard in Pesaro on Italy's Adriatic coast. When she was christened last July, it was the Begum Aga Khan who swung the bottle of Cinzano Principe de Piemonte Blanc de Blancs against Azzurra's shining blue hull while two of her 17 proud godfathers—the Aga Khan, direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, and Gianni Agnelli, head of Fiat—looked on and applauded.
At first glance, the Azzurra challenge looks like a very slick and barely disguised advertising campaign for the 17 giants of Italian commerce and industry who have provided her financial underpinnings. That lineup, sufficient to ensure the prosperity of a small country, includes not only the Aga Khan's Costa Smeralda and Iveco, Fiat's truck subsidiary, but also an airline (Alitalia), a bank (Banco di Roma), an insurance company (Levante), a fashion designer (Valentino), a mineral-water bottler (San Pellegrino), the state telephone and telegraph company (ItalCable) and the makers of aperitifs (Cinzano), wine (Florio), helicopters (Agusta), menswear (SanRemo), marine paints (Veneziani), nautical clothing (Starpoint), plastics (Alfatherm Industriale), power boats (Posillipo) and pasta (Barilla).
Some very expensive promotional paraphernalia is already in place. An elegant hardcover brochure, with dozens of high-quality photographs printed on heavy silver paper, has been distributed to the press. A poster by painter Ugo Nespolo has begun to appear in shop windows and public places around Italy. A half-hour film about the challenge with sound track by Beethoven has been shown several times on Italian television and to civic groups over the length and breadth of the Italian boot. Regattas featuring Azzurra (Italian for sky blue) have been organized for the benefit of press and sponsors; banquets celebrating her have been held on the slightest pretexts and orchestrated on a scale that makes a press lunch at New York's "21" look like potluck in a church basement.
"Italians put sentiment into everything," says Chantal Skibinska, the beautiful, chic and multilingual young woman who mobilized the Azzurra syndicate's resources in Italy for such events. "You can ask these people to give you anything, because they want to do it the best."
On this side of the Atlantic, Casa Italia, the mansion formerly known as Seaward, is being spruced up for a summer social schedule that promises to knock the socks off the hostesses of Newport.
But all the promotional pizzazz aside, the fact remains that the Italian challenge rose from the same motives that America's Cup challenges always do—the irresistible urge of wealthy yachtsmen to join the world's smallest sailing fraternity, the 12-meter class. In spite of highly unfavorable odds, the challengers risk everything—fortune and face—in pursuit of an ornate silver ewer, which, if it were a wedding present, you'd trade in for a vacuum cleaner. Since 1851, untold millions of dollars, pounds, francs and kronor have been spent in the so far futile pursuit of that useless ewer. But still it sits in its glass case at the New York Yacht Club on West 44th Street. It has been said that the Cup will be replaced by the head of the American skipper who loses it.
This year the Italians are preparing to add seven billion lire ($5 million) to the pot. And why? To paraphrase J.P. Morgan, a former commodore of the NYYC, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it." Being able and willing to afford the luxury of an America's Cup adventure buys membership in perhaps the most exclusive club in the world, and exclusivity, my dears, like virtue, is its own reward.
The Italians have a proud maritime tradition, but only in recent years have their boats and crews begun to rise to the top ranks of international offshore yacht racing. The greatest impetus has come from the creation, 16 years ago, of the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, the centerpiece of the Aga Khan's vast Sardinian enterprise. To give its membership something to do and at the same time to attract the attention of yachting's elite, the club has created several major regattas, including the biennial Sardinia Cup, a national team event modeled on England's Admiral's Cup. From its beginning in 1978 the Sardinia Cup, as well as the club's two other notable regattas, the Maxi-Yacht World Championship and the Swan World Cup, have been successes. The Sardinia Cup now ranks along-side the Admiral's Cup, the SORC and Australia's Southern Cross series. Last year it drew 57 boats from 20 countries.
But that isn't 12-meter racing. The America's Cup is a match-race event, one boat and crew pitted against another, nearly identical, boat and crew over a triangular course of approximately 24 nautical miles. A combination of tactics and technology decides the issue, and the experience of the designer, the sailmaker and the crew, especially the helmsman, is crucial. The Italians are excellent seamen and experienced ocean racers, but they are entirely new to match racing. Not until last July, with the launching of Azzurra, were they able even to begin the learning process.