Sport

Fair winds ahead?

After the 33rd America’s Cup spiralled into a bitter battle between two billionaire boating behemoths, can the competition regain its sporting reputation? Matthew Sheahan reports.

June 19 2010
Matthew Sheahan

As BMW Oracle Racing’s USA-17 crossed the finishing line for the second and final time on February 14 2010, winning the world’s oldest international sporting trophy had cost the team roughly $720,000 per minute. At least, that was the best guess by experts who have suggested that BMW Oracle Racing’s campaign for the 33rd America’s Cup cost as much as $200m. But even this extraordinary sum – spent during three years of preparation for two races that lasted a total of 4 hours and 39 minutes – didn’t really reveal the true expense. Software billionaire Larry Ellison’s crusade for the America’s Cup started with the formation of his team in 2000, yet despite being among the best funded, his 2002-2003 and 2007 campaigns both failed to get the team into the position of eventual challenger. If the costs of these endeavours were taken into account, the final tally for Ellison’s success could be as much as $500m.

The America’s Cup has always been an expensive trophy to compete for but it has rarely been fair. If you win the Cup you host the next event and, to a large extent, control the rules once a challenger comes along and throws down the gauntlet. When they do, and there is no fixed time frame in which they have to do so or when the next America’s Cup match will take place, it is up to the defending yacht club and that of the challenger to agree the terms, venue and dates for the next event. But since 1983, when the Australians won the Cup and ended the Americans’ dominance – which had lasted since 1851, the longest winning streak in sporting history – international interest in winning the historic trophy surged. Unfortunately, in the scramble to become a challenger and help form the rules for the next Cup, some yacht clubs allowed themselves to accept one-sided terms from the defender.

Which was precisely what happened after a successful defence by the Swiss team Alinghi in 2007, when a challenge from a Spanish club was accepted and a protocol for the next America’s Cup, the 33rd, was hastily drawn up. When the details were released it was clear that the Spanish club had accepted rules that grossly favoured Alinghi.

From race officials controlled by the defenders to the ability of the defenders to accept or reject any challenger, the stipulations the Cup holders had written for themselves were seen by many as the most biased and unsportsmanlike in the history of the event. Under these rules, the management of the 33rd America’s Cup would be anything but independent. Certainly, it would not be fair. While it was accepted that the America’s Cup pitch was usually skewed to some degree, the AC33 protocol was seen by many as a step too far. The trouble was that few knew how to address the issue to level the pitch.

At first there were negotiations, but Alinghi’s club, the Société Nautique de Genève (SNG), was unwilling to modify its terms, claiming that they were fair and that other challengers waiting in the wings had accepted the terms and simply wanted to get on with the next event.

At this stage in 2007, it was potential challenger BMW Oracle Racing and its club the Golden Gate Yacht Club (GGYC) who were the most vocal in their objection to the terms for the next event. Faced with what they believed was intransigence on the part of the Swiss and the Spanish, they wielded a big stick by suggesting that the Spanish challenge was invalid. The defenders refused to back down and the dispute went to court, where a ruling was issued in favour of the challengers, BMW Oracle and the GGYC.

While the success was celebrated by BMW Oracle, others were not so happy thanks to another quirk of the Cup. Normally, the first official challenger to throw down the gauntlet becomes the Challenger of Record, but this doesn’t give them an automatic right to race the defender. If other clubs issue separate challenges, it is up to the Challenger of Record to organise a series in which the best challenger goes on to the America’s Cup.

In the rare occurrence that a challenger is found to be invalid (in this instance, the Spanish Club Nautico Español de Vela for not meeting the designated defender requirements), the Deed of Gift that outlines the rules of the competition for the Cup dictates that the next valid challenger (in this case the GGYC) is the one to be accepted. No further yacht clubs can issue challenges and a challenger series does not take place. Referred to as Deed of Gift match, this highly unusual state of affairs has only happened once before in 1988.

The scrap over the Challenger of Record and the humiliating defeat that Alinghi and the SNG suffered marked the start of a bitter and acrimonious path towards the 33rd America’s Cup, in which neither side seemed capable of agreeing on anything – from the organisation of the event to the boats that would be used for the competition to the venue. The Deed of Gift makes provision for such disputes by appointing the New York Supreme Courts as arbiters.

So from the first summons in July 2007 through to the AC33 this February, the Cup found itself dragged repeatedly in and out of oak-panelled court rooms in an eye-wateringly expensive legal battle between the two sides. In the process of this struggle, even the most ardent Cup enthusiasts lost interest in what appeared to be more about a bitter squabble between two billionaires than it was about the racing that had made the event so famous. The protagonists both claimed that they were either exercising their rights or fighting to protect the heritage of the 159-year-old trophy.

On the face of it, by the time the event took place in February, the bitter and divisive affair had achieved little more than illustrating what happens when the sporting co-operation that’s so often taken for granted breaks down. To the cynical views of Alinghi and SNG supporters, Ellison had finally gained an entrance to the America’s Cup match proper, something that had eluded him when faced with a multichallenger selection series. By challenging the rules in the courts he now had the defender all to himself.

But there was still more to this Cup of extremes. When the teams’ two boats appeared on the water the sailing public drew breath. Two of the biggest, most advanced multihulls that the sailing world had ever seen suddenly changed the mood among Cup followers. At last, the conversation switched from the frustration of complex court hearings, to that of the prospect of a spectacular battle of two behemoths on the water.

Alinghi had chosen to build a 101ft super-lightweight catamaran, while BMW Oracle Racing opted for a 114ft trimaran with a giant solid wing mast in place of a more conventional sail. Both boats were impressive in their own rights and could sail at three times the wind speed, but BMW Oracle’s USA-17 particularly so, its wing taller than the total wingspan of a Boeing 747 – at 223ft, the largest rigid wing ever built. Indeed, the technology on display propelled the event into completely new territory.

When it came to the best-of-three series race in Valencia, USA-17 blew its Swiss opponents away, winning the Cup 2-0. Ellison had finally, after 10 years of trying, been able to leave his opponent, pharmaceuticals billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli and his Alinghi team, trailing in his wake.

Unfortunately, despite the brief excitement and distraction that was provided when the boats appeared, the years of bitter legal wrangling and protracted uncertainty had also left an entire Cup community behind. Teams that had previously aspired to compete in the 33rd America’s Cup were barely able to comprehend, let alone match, the money that was being spent this time around.

The public had also become disenchanted with an event that had become more of an arms race than a yacht race, and the legal bickering had scared off many potential commercial partners. And to sum up just how bitter and twisted the America’s Cup had become, allegations surfaced that a representative of Alinghi’s yacht club had tried to put pressure on the principal race officer to prevent the start of the second race by refusing to operate the starting signals.

In just under three years the Cup had gone from boom to bust, and many were left wondering whether it could ever recover. But when Larry Ellison addressed a packed press conference just hours after his team’s victory, he was quick to point to a brighter and fairer future.

“We’ve made no decision on venue, we have no firm decision on a date, but we do have a Challenger of Record,” Ellison explained. “But one thing I’d like to assure people on about the 34th America’s Cup is that there will be a completely independent jury, there will be completely independent umpires. It will be an independent group that manages the next America’s Cup and it will be a level playing field for all competitors.” And despite having won, Ellison was clearly keen to ensure that no one forgot about the two-year struggle his team had undergone in its attempt to regain equilibrium, and his winner’s speech struck a chord with those who had witnessed the breakdown of the Cup.

Defeating the Swiss marked a new start for the competition, placing the future of the event in the cooperation between BMW Oracle, the GGYC and the new Challenger of Record, the Club Nautico di Roma and its Mascalzone Latino team. Unlike the invalid Spanish club of 2007, this Italian team has been involved in America’s Cup racing since 2002. Could the Cup recover and get back on track?

Three months after Ellison’s win, on May 6, the first press conference for the 34th America’s Cup took place. To an audience eagerly awaiting a clear direction, BMW Oracle’s CEO Russell Coutts reiterated that co-operation, fair rules, mutual consent and independent management would set this new cycle apart from that of the last event. He went to great lengths to reinforce his view that the future of the Cup was for the Cup fraternity and its advisers to plan and not the sole responsibility of the Cup holders.

Given the two long years of bitter dispute and continued uncertainty that has just passed, such diplomatic language took many by surprise as defenders are usually expected to milk their advantage.

When it came to the boats, he declared that concepts for both a monohull and a multihull were currently being drawn up by neutral designers, but that whatever the new boat turned out to be, it had to be fast, physically demanding, and wired for video and sound in order to bring spectators on board with the sailors. He went so far as to say that the race committee needed to have the power to adjust the racecourse to suit the timings of television, something that would go against the grain of traditionalists. Meanwhile, understandably keen to avoid visits to the courts, Coutts suggested that neutral race management was required – but did not outline how this would be achieved when the Cup holder has the responsibility to run the next series.

But for all the details, what teams and the media wanted to know were the key dates. Here he could be no more certain than to say that the earliest would be 2013/14, and most had already assumed this. Clearer indication was given, however, of some dates along the way. The protocol for the next Cup will be issued by August 31 and the rules for the design of boats by September 30. A decision on the venue will be confirmed by the end of the year and teams will have until January 31 2011, to register as a challenger.

The news was bitter sweet. At last there was a timeline for teams to work toward, but for those that had been hanging on since 2007, the waiting was set to continue for a few months more at least.

Among those teams on the touchline is Sir Keith Mills’ British America’s Cup challenge, Team Origin. Having been admirably quick out of the blocks in forming an impressive Cup squad in 2007, Mills has ended up spending a small fortune to keep his dream team together. Committed to bringing back the trophy that left the UK after the inaugural race of 1851, the details cannot come fast enough for Mills and his team.

In the short term there are plans re-enact the original America’s Cup race of 1851 around the Isle of Wight during Cowes Week this August, where Team Origin will go head to head with BMW Oracle Racing.

“We want to show the world that the America’s Cup is back on track,” says Mills, “and where better to do that than at Cowes Week, the biggest and most famous sailing regatta in the world? GB versus US is where it all started back in 1851, so to be racing each other around the same course again will be spectacular.”

However, a few days’ racing in Cowes alone will not advance the British plan for an assault on the America’s Cup. So how will Team Origin keep itself focused on an event that could still be four years away?

According to key players in the top Cup teams, it takes a minimum of 2,000 sailing hours to get an already experienced and competent team up to speed on manoeuvres and handling. In 2010, many of the Team Origin sailors will spend 200 days racing on a variety of boats. Equally, the design and development of a new Cup boat is clearly crucial, and it takes time to establish both the design and the way in which data is fed through the development loop to best effect. The same is true of the testing of structures and sails.

“Being successful in the America’s Cup is rarely about finding a golden bullet. It’s more about understanding all the small areas that add up to a fast boat and exploiting them,” says Team Origin’s skipper and three-times Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie. And the British team are putting these words into practice at a series of events that look surprisingly like a travelling version of the America’s Cup. The Louis Vuitton Trophy consists of a number of regattas that began in Nice last November, headed to Auckland in March and Sardinia in June, and will continue on to Dubai and Hong Kong.

Included in this group is the current Cup holder and Defender BMW Oracle Racing, as is the first official challenger, the Italian Mascalzone Latino team, along with Team Origin and several other America’s Cup aspirants. And while no one would guarantee that long-term peace had broken out, the early signs are promising that the next America’s Cup will be more of a democratic affair than the head-to-head arms race and legal squabbling of the past two and a half years.