Prior to the Xboat network, messages had to be sent via Scout or Imperial Navy courier, and were limited to a maximum of J-3. This made transmissions of critical wartime messages between the front lines and the Sector capital in Mora lengthy (12 weeks or more), and messages back to Capital took subsequently longer as well. Jump-4 was a technological innovation late in the Second Frontier War -- too late to do any real good-- but this laid the roots for the Xboat System of 624.
It is a historical curiosity that even though the Duchess Cup ostensibly replicates a famous call for help -- "The Zhodani are invading, send reinforcements" -- from Jewell to Mora, the race is from Mora to Jewell and back. (This would be rather like re-enacting Paul Revere's ride by starting in Concord and ending in Boston.) The explanation for this is, quite simply, that the Duchess of Mora wanted to be present at the start and end of the race, and did not wish to travel to Jewell to see either. What nobility wants, nobility gets.
Part America's Cup, part Paris-Dakar Rally, and part XPRIZE competition, the Duchess Cup was devised as a way to "crowdsource" innovations in jump technology by encouraging the use of nonstandard techniques and devices to break previous performance barriers.
The rules for the Duchess Cup are exquisitely simple: Race from Mora to Jewell and back in the least amount of time. Whoever arrives first, wins.
There are, however, rules for entry into the regatta:
- Imperial Navy and Scout ships/crews still in service cannot compete. Decommissioned ships and retired scouts/sailors are fine.
- Megacorporations, while not expressly forbidden from competing, usually sponsor other teams.
- Each ship must allocate 5 tons of cargo for mail delivery. Naturally, this means it must also be armed.
- Each ship must have a way to pay its expenses (typically the costs of fuel, parts, and life support upkeep; berthing costs are usually waived by the starport).
- Any size ship and crew may enter.
This last point is what makes the race interesting. If you have the funds for it, there is nothing stopping you from refitting an 1800 dton Leviathan class Merchant Cruiser and entering it in the race. There is also nothing stopping a retired scout from taking an old Type S, refitting it to Jump-6 capability, and also entering.
More importantly, there are no restrictions on what type of systems are used. Experimental designs are highly encouraged, as any technological innovations which lead to victory are likely to be bought by the Navy and/or the Scouts (unless, of course, said innovators were sponsored by a Megacorporation -- in which case it likely already owns the tech through dense legal apparatus. This technology will still be sold to the Imperium, of course... just at a hefty profit). Similarly, new methods of jump calculation, or psychology which leads to greater crew synergy, etc are also adopted, with the innovators being asked to teach their skills at Imperial Academies.
In fact, it's not just the first-place finishers who win: the Navy/IISS typically skim all applicants for innovation, not just the winner. Sometime, finishing can be as important as winning, especially if the winner used a risky strategem whereas the third-place ship used something safer and more repeatable.
This is also a chance for smaller shipyards to showcase their skills. Their size would prevent them from getting an Imperial build contract, but selling a winning design would allow them to bootstrap themselves to greater profitability.
In the end, everyone benefits: the Imperium gets new technology without having to fund its research, the sailors get sector-wide fame and fortune (the purse is typically 20 million or so credits, to be divided among the crew, and titles of minor nobility are common for ship captains), innovators see their technology and techniques adapted by an interstellar polity, and jaded nobles get something to talk about.
Ultimately, the Duchess Cup is as much a test of skill and of character as it is of technology. The safest route is also the slowest, and so for a period of three months the crews of the Duchess Cup Regatta are risking their lives for a finish line they may not reach. Ships are pushed to their breaking point and beyond, for most crews skip monthly ship maintenance in order to keep times in port to a minimum. Risky, high-precision jumps are plotted in order to reduce transit to starports for refueling.
Misjumps happen. Some crews are never seen again. Others are stranded in distant systems, unable to leave due to design compromise -- ships are usually stripped of everything deemed "unnecessary" in order to make room for larger jump drives and fuel, and often that means such things as fuel scoops and streamlining. (Fuel is usually bought already refined, often pre-paid by corporate or collegiate sponsors, to reduce downtime.)
And then of course there are the pirates, who would love nothing more than to capture an undergunnedyacht stuffed to the gills with experimental technology, prepaid scrip for fuel, and potentially famous crewmembers (nobles are often aboard these ships, either as sponsors, ship owners, or particularly intrepid crew -- sometimes all three).
The Duchess Cup. If you live, you're already luckier than most. If you win, you will be famous and set for the rest of your life. And if you lose...
... well, you'll have plenty of company.
UPDATE: McThag weighs in with a concurrent race, the Duchesses' Fevrchiench, here.