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The Cup Spilleth Over

The 33rd America's Cup was a spectacle once it got underway, but let's hope its current caretakers do it justice next time around. The Jobson Report from our April 2010 issue

March 30, 2010

Gary Jobson 368

After 48 years of following or competing in the America’s Cup, I’m still astonished by the events of the 33rd America’s Cup. The acrimonious lead-up to this latest edition may be the Cup’s most bizarre chapter yet. It began in 2003 when a then 37-year-old Ernesto Bertarelli won the Cup on his first try. It was an impressive showing, but his tenure as Cup holder has changed the nature of the America’s Cup in ways never envisioned by the authors’ of the original Deed of Gift. Larry Ellison, has an opportunity to turn it around.

Since the first defense in New York Harbor in 1870 the Cup has generated huge interest. One simply needs to revisit newspapers of the era to understand its stature-front pages were covered with America’s Cup stories. While there was widespread disdain for the legal battles leading up to the 33rd Match, the media, and avid fans, kept a close watch on every development. And when the two giant multihulls met for the best of three series, curiosity attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers to the Internet. A reported 656,000 unique visitors watched the live racing direct through the official website. And that doesn’t include viewership of the streaming broadcasting by 350 other Internet sites worldwide.

At first there was disappointment. Alinghi set weather parameters that were virtually impossible to sail in: they didn’t want to race if the wind was over 15 mph or the waves higher than 3 feet.

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After two days of weather cancellations the race committee ran out of patience and simply started running races. Principal Race Officer Harold Bennett is my choice for MVP of the match for running races in spite of protests by Alinghi and its club, Societe Nautique of Geneve.

Once the races got underway it was a treat to watch the two 90-footers engaged in battle. Bertarelli did himself no favors at the helm of his big cat, nor did he off the water, where the New York courts consistently agreed with Ellison’s argument that Bertarelli was out of line with the protocol he had written for the match. Of course, Bertarelli complained that the court favored the Americans.

What bothered me was Bertarelli’s refusal to negotiate in good faith at any time. BMW Oracle always seemed ready. There would be talks, and then Bertarelli would renege on any preliminary agreement. This pattern continued right up to the actual match. As the years go by, he may one day realize he has only himself to blame for his defeat and embarrassment.

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After winning in 2003 Alinghi did three specific things that were wrong, in my opinion. First was hiring international talent to compete on Bertarelli’s behalf, which flies in the face of the Deed of Gift, which calls for “a friendly competition between foreign countries.” Since 1958 most every individual crew represented their own countries (there were a few exceptions). I hope Ellison defends the Cup with at least half, if not all, American sailors. Secondly, Bertarelli turned the 32nd Cup in Valencia into a profit center. This goes against the spirit of the charitable trust of the America’s Cup. No defender before Alinghi made the America’s Cup a for-profit enterprise, nor should it be ever again. Thirdly, writing a protocol that completely favored the defender was disgraceful.

As I write, there are many questions to be answered about the 34th edition. Ellison should learn from the experience of the San Diego YC in 1987. The club waited to name the boat, venue, and date of the next match, and this inaction opened the door for a rogue challenge. New Zealander Michael Fay walked in with his challenge and we watched a bizarre event in 1988. At the time I thought we would never see that again. Well, we have, and hopefully, we are done with Deed of Gift matches, lawsuits, court hearings, and bad behavior.
Looking ahead, Ellison, his manager Russell Coutts, and their team now have a blank sheet of paper to create an America’s Cup protocol that will generate “friendly competition between foreign countries.” The Challenger of Record, Club Nautico di Roma, was announced immediately after the last race. Now the Golden Gate YC and Club Nautico di Roma should review the past, and decide what is best for the future.

I have a list of ideas for them on how to maximize interest while adhering to the spirit of the Deed of Gift. The Deed says the match shall take place on the waters where the defending club holds its annual regatta. This means San Francisco Bay, a natural amphitheater with generally reliable wind and a long tradition of sailing. If San Francisco Bay is not suitable because of shipping traffic, there are many other suitable places in the United States to hold the Cup. Both San Diego and Newport, R.I., are worthy venues. Regardless of what city hosts the 34th America’s Cup, it must be sailed on U.S. waters.

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The next item on my list is to increase participation. The cost of competing now is so high that few teams could mount credible campaigns. A serious look at how to reduce costs would be a first step. A few ideas would be to limit the number of boats that could be built, create a salary or expense cap similar to other professional sports, limit the time allowed for training and competing, negotiate favorable leases for shore side facilities with the host city, and decide whether to go with an completely open or limited design.

Of great interest is the boats to be raced. The multihulls certainly showed unbelievable speeds. Sailing a 40-mile windward-leeward course in 7 knots of wind in only 150 minutes is astounding. These boats sailed three times the speed of the wind. That said, the America’s Cup has always been a designer’s race. So I think the future Cup’s should favor speed. As for the tactical part of the equation, we witnessed how tactics at the start and around the course still made a big difference in the outcome of the races in Valencia. Even a new racecourse should be considered. If you are racing some kind of cat why not start on a beam reach? After all, reaching is the fastest point of sail.

When the New York YC held the America’s Cup there were always multiple defenders competing for the chance to race in the match. The competition in the defense trials gave the New York YC the edge. The first time there was more than one challenger was only back in 1970. In 2000 the New Zealanders were the only defense syndicate. They defended once, but lost in 2003. A lack of defense trials probably hurt their chances. In 2007, Alinghi invited itself to compete in the early challenger trials. This was a huge mistake by the challengers to let this happen.

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The most interesting Cups have featured a two-ring show with both the challenger and the defender allowing multiple teams to compete. Ellison might not like it, but his team will be stronger if it has to win the defender trials. I hope Ellison and Coutts have the courage to create a multiple-team defense format.

I enjoyed covering the 33rd America’s Cup with multihull ace Randy Smythe. One disappointment was the lack of onboard cameras and microphones. This is where fans have the best vantage point. But we did learn that the Internet is a viable way to watch sailing. I expect to see lots of development in this area over the next few years. In the near future, Internet viewers will be able to migrate the pictures from their computers to high definition television screens. The sights and sounds from on board will take the America’s Cup to new heights.

It’s hard to envision what twists and turns the America’s Cup will take over the next several decades. But one thing is clear: this venerable regatta needs to be returned to its former glory. The new defense team has the ability to make the America’s Cup special now and into the future. There will always be bizarre stories along the way, but let’s hope none of them live up to the 33rd Match.

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