Looking Ahead to the 2007 Cup

What to expect from the 2007 America's Cup

The America's Cup is changing at an accelerating rate. Participants from 30 years ago would hardly recognize it. Many changes are for the better, while some diminish its significance. On the positive side, the speedy America's Cup Class yachts are exciting to watch, the European venue (Valencia, Spain)is healthy, shorter courses will keep the races closer, advanced technology keeps helping sailing in the long term, there are many new competitors, and the age-old incentive for a challenger to take the Cup to its home waters still applies.¶ On the negative side, the lack of a nationality requirement goes against the standard set by the Cup's Deed of Gift, which calls for a "friendly competition between foreign countries." Today's America's Cup teams are multi-national-a trend I think of as "international free agency," which is nice for those who are paid $15,000 to $50,000 per month, but doesn't build fan interest. The astronomical cost of campaigning also reduces participation. In 2003, America's Cup Management predicted 19 challenges. But at the December 2004 entry deadline, seven announced challenges and one confidential campaign had the required paperwork. There are at least 10 other syndicates trying to get organized, and teams can still enter until April 29, for an extra 200,000 Euros. With the Challenger Trials starting just over two years from now, it's unlikely many more teams will enter. I think the next Cup winner is already sailing. Aside from these issues, ACM hasgreatly improved the AC Class. The boats will be one ton lighter, sail with one more crew for a total of 17 (one observer also allowed), and carry a deeper keel, a rig that's 500 pounds lighter, and a longer spinnaker pole. The racing will be more fun to watch than the past parades in Auckland. More boatspeed means that extra distance can be made in puffs, increasing the chance of passing. According to Dyer Jones, who will manage race operations, the races will be 8.5- to 10.5-mile with four legs. (In 2003 there were six legs covering 18.5 miles). The starting sequence will be reduced to seven-minutes. There will be two races per day, the first starting at 12:30 p.m. (that's 6:30 a.m. ET). ACM spokesman Marcus Hutchinson calls Valencia, "the Fremantle of the Med." Reliable winds will help keep public interest, diminished last time by unnecessary "weather delays." Jones says racing will take place in winds from 5 to 24 knots and even these numbers are flexible. Early weather studies show wind averages of 12 to 18 knots during the Cup period. We'll see if they're accurate. All these changes indicate there should be a premium on sailing skill. Using the match-race circuit for practice is vital to competitors. The pendulum that swung so far in the direction of technology in 1992 has now swung back to the sailor as making the biggest difference. I like the trend and fans will, too. There will be many new faces on the water in 2007. Hutchinson points out that the new generation of professional sailors is different because they have grown up sailing full-time. Familiar Cup names such as Dennis Conner, Russell Coutts, Paul Cayard, Peter Gilmour, Tom Schnackenberg, Tom Whidden, John Bertrand, John Kolius, and Ken Read will likely be absent or play small roles. For Americans, Valencia (population 760,000) will be interesting to visit. While the America's Cup has often been called yachting's "Holy Grail," Valencia claims to have the real chalice from which Jesus drank during the Last Supper. Localorganizers hope a million people will be attracted to the newer version, and the government is spending a billion Euros on the necessary infrastructure. Local sailing is organized by 38 yacht clubs, the most prominent of which is the Royal Nautical Club of Valencia, founded in 1903. But Jones says there's education to do, since few people are familiar with the America's Cup and few speak English. Many people ask whether and when to go watch. Both Jones and Hutchinson recommend traveling to Europe for the Act regattas in Northern Europe (possibly Malmo, Sweden), Trapeni, Sicily, or Valencia over the next year. "The fleet racing is spectacular," says Hutchinson. This America's Cup already has controversy, namely Russell Coutts' dismissal from Alinghi. ACM amended Protocol Rule 13.12 to prevent individuals from switching teams after they've been employed more than 180 days, which prevents Coutts from joining another team. Coutts is fighting the issue in court. ACM has a bold vision of how to run an exciting America's Cup. Manager Michel Bonnefous has done an impressive job selling sponsors and has more than 100 people currently employed. Which brings us to the question: Will Alinghi successfully defend or will a challenger prevail and take the Cup elsewhere? Stay tuned for my predictions next month.