On to Valencia for the 2007 America's Cup

The next America's Cup doesn't begin until June 23, 2007. But over the next three years the Swiss defense team Alinghi and the Societe Nautique de Geneve, which holds the Cup, plan to encourage more challengers, run pre-Cup regattas, and welcome visitors to a new Cup racing venue on the Mediterranean-Valencia, on the southeastern coast of Spain. The Swiss have focused on finding reliable wind and reducing the number of race delays experienced in 2003, and that figured heavily in the choice of Valencia. According to an objective source, Team New Zealand's weather guru Roger Badham, the solid sea breeze out of the east-southeast typically comes in at 15 to 17 knots. During the last Louis Vuitton Cup, the challengers limited racing to a ridiculously narrow wind range of 7 to 19 knots. SNG's event manager-called AC Management-envisions racing in a broader window of 6 to 25 knots. Better yet, they plan to vary the course length depending on wind strength. Its goal is to have races last less than 90 minutes. This will be a welcome innovation for television viewers: In the United States, a 1:00 p.m. start in Valencia will mean a 7:00 a.m. live TV show on the East Coast. The America's Cup will be "breakfast television." Even though it's been nearly a year, I'm still amazed that landlocked Switzerland holds the America's Cup. Since 1896, Switzerland has won only three Olympic sailing medals and its most famous mariners were shipwrecked-the Swiss Family Robinson. But Alinghi, led by 38-year-old Ernesto Bertarelli, has set a new standard for America's Cup excellence. He recruited an all-star international crew, created a versatile, sturdy design, and operated with impressive efficiency. Alinghi was so successful that it will be a task to attract many worthy challengers to race for the Louis Vuitton Cup and the right to challenge. Serious teams will have to spend at least $50 million to be competitive. Raising these kinds of funds is a staggering endeavor, and even nine-time America's Cup competitor Dennis Conner is overwhelmed. A Conner-less America's Cup seems unthinkable, but he has expressed reservations about challenging, and sources say he is on the verge of selling his boats and equipment to an Italian group and has publicly expressed reservations about challenging. I do anticipate teams from Spain, France, Great Britain, and Italy will be announced in the coming months. Alinghi and Oracle/BMW Racing, which is the "challenger of record" from the United States, are already committed, of course. America's only challenge at this writing is led by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison. He did well in his first Cup campaign, finishing second in the Louis Vuitton Cup to Alinghi. But Ellison wants it all and is willing to invest heavily over the next four years. He would love to take the Cup to his home waters of San Francisco Bay. We already glimpsed what that would look like last September when Oracle raced Alinghi. The Bay provided good wind, the racing was a delight to watch, and the boats looked even in a variety of winds. Ellison has upgraded his afterguard with helmsman Gavin Brady and tactician John Kostecki, and the latter's knowledge of the Bay made the difference in Oracle's win at that regatta. New Zealander Chris Dickson is Oracle's manager, with total control. For the fourth time in a Cup campaign, Dickson will work with the Farr Yacht Design group. Although the duo hasn't won in the past, it could break through in 2007. Their funding will be abundant, top level talent is being hired, and they have plenty of time to prepare. The wild card is whether the demanding Dickson will hold it all together for the next three years. OneWorld Challenge's Craig McCaw still owns his ACC boats but has been silent regardinghis plans. If he were to race again, I, for one, hope he uses American sailors to lead his campaign. Top U.S. talents such as Paul Cayard and Terry Hutchinson are negotiating with offshore teams, which is certainly good for their careers, but it's a shame another U.S. syndicate can't use their talents. The next preview event is in late June in Newport, R.I., and there will be several more. The Swiss hope to raise the America's Cup's profile by showcasing boats, sailors, and competition at several international venues. The downside is the high cost of participating, and TNZ's Ross Blackman is on record saying, "If it is too expensive, we will not be there." Of course the big show will be in Valencia. The world has gotten to know Newport, Fremantle, San Diego, and Auckland. Valencia should be at least their equal as a Cup site; it's an intriguing city with a strong cultural heritage. Since 1983, challengers have won four of seven America's Cups. Last year Alinghi looked invincible. But with a new venue and lots of time, a competitive challenge may emerge and move the Cup yet again.