The America’s Cup Chugs Along

©franck Socha/louis Vuitton

The ongoing America’s Cup saga has been especially dramatic over the past week. With only eight weeks to go before Race One of the final, the remaining three challengers and Team New Zealand are already sparring. The legal maneuvering could be a harbinger to the 31st running of the Cup.

OneWorld versus Oracle/BMW

The repechage match scheduled to begin Friday (NZ time) promises to be exciting. The winner goes on to meet Alinghi in the Louis Vuitton Cup final while the loser is eliminated. The teams split their two races in the first two round robins. But in the quarterfinal, Oracle defeated OneWorld four straight. Both teams have strengths and weaknesses.

OneWorld survived a tough series against Prada. Under the ruling by the arbitration panel they will be deducted one point from each series. For the repechage, it means OneWorld will have to defeat Oracle five times to advance. The afterguard of OneWorld is sailing well. They have made continual improvements to their speed. This team is strongest when the wind is light. But they looked suspect against Prada on the downwind legs.

Oracle, for its part, is coming off a tough series with Alinghi. Alinghi won
4-0. In almost every race Oracle changed its afterguard roster. Skipper Chris Dickson clearly wants to steer the boat. But this might not be the best thing for Oracle since Peter Holmberg has done a good job, particularly on the starting line. This will be a classic Peter Gilmour versus Chris Dickson match. The two have raced against each other for over 20 years. Both have had struggles when the action gets particularly intense. The stakes are high. The decisions made by Dickson and Gilmour could make the difference.

Boat Substitution

The Challenger of Record Management Committee (CORM) was surprised to receive a letter from Team New Zealand’s legal advisor Russell Green stating that the challenge teams could not substitute a boat after the semifinal round. Team New Zealand gets poor marks for their timing. If they had a legitimate beef on this issue they should have brought it up earlier. The reason for the letter is that Oracle and Alinghi have been working on modifications to their second boats to replicate a potential design innovation thought to be created by Team New Zealand. TNZ, for its part, has a stern bustle that would give them an edge. The arbitration panel will most likely be called in to resolve the issue on boat substitution. There is a small discrepancy in the wording between the America’s Cup Protocol and the Conditions of Race. On this issue I think the challengers will prevail.

Design Wars

TNZ’s new innovation is still a deep secret. Alinghi helmsman Russell Coutts said they were aware of the "appendage" innovation back in September 2000 but did not believe it would be deemed legal by the measurers. "It’s something we are well aware of. I think it was an idea that was first mooted during the last Cup. Certainly back in September our design team were on to this. But we felt, probably unwisely, that the measurers wouldn’t allow it."

Once again the arbitration panel may be asked to rule on this issue. Historically, the measurers are very liberal when ruling on design issues. My prediction is the boat will be legal.

Arrivederci Prada

Over the past five years the Prada Challenge has purchased four America’s Cup yachts and built an additional four. Throughout the long campaign, Prada’s CEO Patrizio Bertelli has spent at least $150 million in his quest to win the America’s Cup. In 2000, the team did well to win the Louis Vuitton Cup and reach the America’s Cup. But in 2002, the team never reached its stride. Bertelli fired designer Doug Peterson early in Round Robin One. Their boats under went major modifications a number of times over the past few months. Prada was simply no match for either Alinghi in the quarterfinal or OneWorld in the semifinal.

According to one team member, there was strife in the afterguard. In the final race, starting helmsman Rod Davis was replaced by Gavin Brady. This move is equivalent to pulling the goalie in a hockey game.

If the Cup remains in New Zealand, Bertelli probably won’t challenge again according to insiders. But if the Cup leaves New Zealand he might continue. Bertelli has difficult challenges with his fashion house Prada which lives under a mountain of debt. He has failed at his attempt at an Initial Public Offering at least twice. The disappointment of losing and business pressures may keep him away from future America’s Cup projects.

The Prada Challenge also had the additional burden of being the Challenger of Record. In this role they were unpopular with the other teams as they tried to manipulate the system to their advantage. A more democratic approach would have been better.

Weather Delays

The self imposed restriction of 19 knots of maximum wind cost the challengers 4 days during the semifinal round. This brings lost days to a total of 17 since racing began October 1. The challengers are trying to race in conditions they anticipate during the America’s Cup beginning February 15 (the height of New Zealand’s summer). But this thinking could backfire. Oracle/BMW yacht designer Bruce Farr told me, "it could easily blow 25 knots for a week down here. We’ve been trying to get the challengers to raise the wind limit." This can be done by mutual consent by the remaining three teams.

Oracle/BMW Tune-up

I spent a day last week on board Oracle’s trial horse USA71. The attitude on the "B" boat was excellent. They understand their role and work hard to prepare the varsity squad for racing. These boats are technological marvels. The day I was on board the true wind speed averaged between 23 and 26 knots. Everything is difficult to handle but the boat performed well.

Among the nifty innovations is the winch system. Every winch can be linked together so multiple grinders can work in unison. All the winches are made of carbon fiber by Harken. They are light, strong and powerful. It is a real tribute to the technology of this Wisconsin based company.

In October I was privileged to be on the sidelines for a Washington Redskins/Indianapolis Colts football game. While sailing and football are dramatically different sports, I found the athletic prowess of the players to be similar and the practice routines to be both similarly structured. The football players may earn more pay but the sailors work just as hard.