Taking on the America’s Cup

Team Caribbean is challenging the giant bots of the boating world. Georgia Popplewell explains

’97 Youth Regatta; Peter Holmberg is in the background. Photograph by A. J. BlakePhotograph by A. J. BlakePhotograph by A. J. Blake

Out of a late-night drinking session in the island of St Thomas came a most challenging proposition. Shooting the breeze during the annual Carnival, sailor Peter Holmberg, a St Thomas native then ranked 13th in the world in match racing, and Michael Bornn, a businessman, came up with the insane idea of sending a US Virgin Islands team to the America’s Cup 2000 in New Zealand.

In a sense, it was the kind of idea only rum could induce. The teams which compete for the oldest trophy in international sport and the most coveted title in sailing come from wealthy developed countries, not dinky islands with populations barely reaching 100,000. As the America’s Cup website baldly states: “The America’s Cup competition is an international war among individuals and nations waged with financial resources, technology and talent. The Cup is generally won by the team that designs and develops the fastest boat, and then sails it to the highest level of performance.”

But when Holmberg and Bornn sobered up, the idea was still with them, and they set about creating the Virgin Islands America’s Cup Challenge (VIACC). In the process, they’ve also given the America’s Cup its first ever multi racial team.

By May 1996 the St Thomas Yacht Club had sent their US$100,000 entry fee to New Zealand. Getting a team to the America’s Cup requires anything between US$10 and $35 million, and finding imaginative ways of raising funds is a significant part of any campaign. For tiny St Thomas, appealing to local sponsors and competing with five other US teams for their share of the American sponsorship pie, the challenge has been even more acute.

But with Holmberg’s ranking improving with each outing on the world racing circuit (he’s currently ranked number four), the VIACC has slowly but surely been garnering the support required to outfit itself with some top-class personnel, including yacht designer David Pedrick, the creator of two America’s Cup winners. They were also able to purchase 1987 Cup Champion Dennis Conner’s Stars and Stripes ‘92 as a training vessel. Stars and Stripes now sits in Charlotte Amalie harbour, bedecked with sponsors’ flags, and for a tax-deductible donation of $25,000 it could be yours to sail for a half-day.

In November 1997 the VIACC launched Team Caribbean, to attract the interest and support of the other Caribbean territories, though strict residency requirements mean that non-St Thomas or US residents aren’t eligible as team members. December 1997 then saw the VIACC hosting the Caribbean’s first ever International Match Race, which attracted eight America’s Cup teams from throughout the world to Charlotte Amalie harbour. The first prize went to Britain’s Chris Law, who beat Holmberg’s team into second place with a 3-0 win in the last round.

Peter Holmberg looks a little like a seafaring Tom Selleck. As CEO of the VIACC as well as team skipper, he is called upon not only to sail spectacularly, but also to manage the campaign and to exploit his looks and good nature in the name of promotion (Holmberg appears on the cover of one of the USVI visitors’ guides floating on a yellow inflatable mattress, holding a miniature replica of the team yacht out of the reach of a grasping blonde in a bikini). He and Team President Michael Bornn (who’s a mixed-race St Thomian) aren’t naïve about their project. They’re aware that the support of this mostly black and relatively poor population may, in fact, be the hardest thing to find.

During the match race weekend in December 1997, public opinion on the campaign appeared to be divided along class and racial lines. The white St Thomians I talked to were almost all aware of, and behind, the campaign. But from black locals working in the duty-free shops, driving taxis or simply walking the streets of the capital, I heard either complete oblivion to the fact that mere yards away in Charlotte Amalie harbour one of their countrymen was running rings around the other world-ranked sailors; or anger over the fact that so much attention was being given to a bunch of boats when social services were lacking.

The answer to these and other questions is the Virgin Islands’ Marine Program. The brainchild of Michael Bornn, it may, at the end of the day, be the most crucial aspect of the Challenge. Pauline Dawes, the Program’s Vice President, talks about a problem that is endemic throughout the region: the irony that, in spite of being island-dwellers, most Caribbean people don’t know how to swim, fear the sea, and, as a result, shy away from boats, and careers in and around the marine environment; and put leisure craft down as foreigners’ business. The Marine Program comprises an initiative teaching locals how to swim, and a series of activities designed to bring St Thomians back to the sea, beginning, rightly, in the schools. Schoolchildren cheering the local team along were among the few dark faces in the harbourfront audience.

Michael Bornn sees the USVI America’s Cup thrust as a stimulus for revitalising the USVI, both economically and socially. That may sound ambitious, but then, so was the idea of taking a team to the America’s Cup. Just as Arthur Ashe and Tiger Woods changed the faces of their respective sports, so could a multi racial team at the America’s Cup cause radical revisions in the sport of sailing. And if they bring home the Cup, better yet. I wish them luck: people who live on islands deserve to have positive feelings about the sea.