Pass Me That Blank Sheet of Paper…

I have to say, I’m kind of gobsmacked…

But not by the Golden Gate Yacht Club’s (GGYC) court action. Barely were the electronic dipoles set on last Friday’s blog when the GGYC, who represent Larry Ellison’s Oracle team, filed with the Supreme Court of the State of New York in support of their Challenge to Alinghi for a 33rd America’s Cup Match. GGYC are claiming that the current Challenger of Record, the Club Náutico Español de Vela (CNEV) don’t qualify as a yacht club under the Deed of Gift. They want the court to invalidate CNEV’s challenge, and insist that it’s replaced with GGYC’s own challenge to Alinghi (the topic of a previous blog).

Nor was I surprised by Monday’s announcement that TEAMORIGIN, representing the British Royal Thames Yacht Club, had chucked their hat in the ring and become the third challenger. It’s in Alinghi’s interests to line up as many challengers as possible on their side – and they’ve persuaded the Brits to join the Spanish and South Africa’s Team Shosholoza in challenging under the disputed Protocol. The Société Nautique de Genève (SNG), which Alinghi represent (or is the other way round?), followed this up with a press release to the effect that Larry Ellison was damaging the event and should give it up…

Equally unsurprisingly, Oracle responded swiftly, giving a press conference on Tuesday, where Larry Ellison reiterated his issues with Alinghi’s present Protocol and insisted that he didn’t want his catamaran challenger to end up on the water - but that it was the only lever he had to force Alinghi to come up with a fair set of rules for the game.

Ellison told the gathered fourth estate, ‘We had a meeting of all of the challengers at 2 p.m. today about these issues, the litigation and the associated uncertainties surrounding the litigation and I think we got a pretty broad agreement among the challengers. The outcome we'd like is to negotiate a reasonable protocol with Alinghi. No one wants to see this go to court. Our goal is to have a reasonable protocol with Alinghi. But you must understand—if you haven't read the protocol, you must read the protocol. The protocol says that if Alinghi doesn't like a challenger they may throw that challenger out of the Cup for any reason at their sole discretion. We think that's both unreasonable and unfair.’

I wasn’t even taken aback when Ellison also announced that he’d be sticking with the CEO and Skipper model for his Oracle team, but that this time it would be Russell Coutts instead of Chris Dickson in the role. That one’s been trailed for a while now, but the return of Jonathan E makes you wonder if it wasn’t the Protocol clause that allows ACM to exclude any challenger they don’t like, that set the whole GGYC Challenge and court action running. Did Ellison think that Bertarelli might seek to exclude an Oracle team that included Russell Coutts? Or maybe I’ve been working too hard on the thriller plotlines recently…

Nor was I fazed when Alinghi announced their party for the following day. And they were able to make some announcements that might settle some Challenger unease, not least of which was the entirely unsurprising news that their Cup will be held in Valencia in 2009. So at least the players on either side of the court room agree on that much - Ellison had said on Tuesday that if his court action succeeded and he won the Cup in 2008 in a catamaran, then the following summer he would run a conventional Cup in Valencia.

I suppose that’s something firm on which Cup teams can plan…

But I think that’s about as far as the agreement goes - Bertarelli had some choice words for Ellison at his press conference, describing the GGYC court action as ‘bullshit’. And Brad Butterworth followed this up with an email to the sailing newsletter Scuttlebutt … ‘Oracle struggled to come 5th in the last Regatta and my advice to Larry is to get Garrard’s phone number and order a replica of the Cup and be done with it.’ These don’t sound like the words of a man who’s going to be joining his old homie Coutts at Oracle any time soon.

So, we have Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts lining up – whether it be on the water or in a courtroom – against Ernesto Bertarelli and Brad Butterworth. Who ever would have thought? If there is a glimmer of light, it’s that the newly set-up Arbitration Panel will start to consider the case of Oracle’s second Challenge and court action. Perhaps they can negotiate their way through the murk, but hey, it could be worse, we could be cycle fans…

Meanwhile, Alinghi and ACM want to hold a couple of preliminary Acts next year, one in Valencia in July, and the second somewhere in Europe in the autumn – both to be raced in the current IACC V5 boats. The design rule for the new boats, along with the event rules, will now all be published by October 31st – which is a serious improvement over the end-of-the-year-if-we’re-ready that’s in the Protocol.

They also announced that Team New Zealand have become the fourth team to challenge through the CNEV Protocol. Dalton had already said that the current situation wasn’t holding them up, as they were focused on re-signing the team… ‘To a man our guys want to come back.’ That’ll include Ray Davies presumably, as the Mean Machine campaign for the Volvo Ocean Race was suspended. The team announced they don’t have the funding to continue, which frees up skipper Ray Davies to go again with Team New Zealand.

I found the speed with which TNZ plumped for Alinghi’s version of the Cup's future, rather than Oracle’s, a little unexpected, after the apparently acrimonious nature of the final days of the last Cup match. But there's an excellent interview with Dean Barker on Sail-World which explains the Kiwi's thinking - it seems it was Alinghi's offer to include the designers of the entered teams in the process of developing the new rule that swung it. It's also clear that TNZ are more willing to give Alinghi the benefit of the doubt over the new Protocol, as we discussed in a previous blog.

So... what really rocked my world was the news that ACM and Alinghi have decided that the teams will only be allowed to sail one of the new Cup boats at a time, and they will not be permitted to race each other except within an ACM event. Bertarelli pointed out that one of the biggest costs is testing, and the boat limitations will, ‘Reduce the amount of time wasting money going around the track without a competitive aim.’

This is why he wants Alinghi to sail in the challenger series up to the semi-finals, so they have some opportunity to sail against other boats. This is a dramatic change not only to the way we race for the Cup (leading to an F1 style travelling series where the final America's Cup match is simply the 'play-off' stage between the top two teams in a league?), but also to the way Cup teams go about their preparation.

Stop and think about it for a moment and you realize what a massive impact this is going to have on the way Cup teams do business (assuming we actually compete under these conditions). Sailing with Cup teams used to mean two boat testing and in-house practice racing - that’s what you did, day in and day out.

No more.

The planners within Cup teams will be starting again, you can chuck out everything from the Org chart to the schedule and start with several fresh pieces of paper. This is going to call for a complete rethink of how you approach the problem. Bertarelli wants to cut the costs, but I suspect the big teams will just be sitting around trying to work out where to shift the emphasis to try to make up what they’ve lost - and probably spending even more money.

For instance - how will twenty guys learn to race together? They can go out and practice the moves on their own on one of these boats until they’re blue in the race, but it isn’t the same as racing together under pressure. Anyone for a new class of 90 Maxi’s?

And how will the boat’s performance be gauged and improved when it can only sail on its own? Will the strategy be to just pour the money that would previously have been used for sails, salaries and maintenance costs during testing, into computer design code, and tank and wind tunnel testing? That way you’re betting on the boat just coming out of the box as fast as possible, you build as late as possible and the race crew just jump on right before the regatta starts. Needless to say, this is good news for designers and programmers, not such good news for the sailors, sailmakers and shore crews. If the last America’s Cup wasn’t as much of a design race as previously, the next one sure as hell will be.

Another strategy might be to build the boat earlier and design a heavily upgraded instrument system that might actually be able to measure the difference between one headsail and another. In the past, this instrument project always looked prohibitively expensive, compared to two boat testing, because of all the other benefits you get from having the sailors out on the water training together every day. But now it looks like it might be the only way that you’re going to be able to determine the yacht’s performance from one day to the next.

Or perhaps the teams with the cash will do both. And build a couple of one design 90 footers for race training while they’re at it…

Mark Chisnell ©