End Game?

I promised myself that I wouldn’t post another blog update until Ernesto Bertarelli and/or his various intermediaries at America’s Cup Management (ACM), Alinghi or Société Nautique de Genève (SNG) had made a response to the dilemma he was posed after the New York State Supreme court’s decision ten days ago.

Essentially, Bertarelli’s choices were to appeal the court’s decision, and they have thirty days to do that once the actual court order is issued in the next week or so. Or they could meet with the new Challenger of Record, the Golden Gate Yacht Club (GGYC) and its Oracle Racing team, and negotiate a new Protocol for the 33rd Cup, by mutual consent, that would give us the kind of event we’re used to seeing – with multiple challengers.

Or Bertarelli could simply decide to meet the GGYC in what might be called a Deed of Gift Challenge – one where mutual consent could not be reached on the form of the 33rd America’s Cup, so the races have to be sailed under the basic conditions that the Deed of Gift specifies for such an occasion. Essentially, this means a three race series in big multi-hulls, either at the tail end of next summer, or early in May 2009.

And for most of last week, there was a collective holding of breath (at least amongst those of you still following this), and much sucking of teeth while Bertarelli made up his mind. I found it a little odd that he hadn’t already decided in advance on his response to all the possible outcomes - but then, maybe he wasn’t kidding when he said he couldn’t lose the court case because he had the best lawyers.

In the meantime, the GGYC held a meeting with the other challengers, which resulted in a letter to the SNG from the head of Oracle Racing, Russell Coutts, explaining what they wanted changed in the current Protocol to achieve mutual consent for a match. Meanwhile, Russell was stonewalling the tricky questions in a way that would make any Presidential contender proud, and commentators were trying to figure out what it all meant...

Until finally, last Friday, Bertarelli appeared to have decided to negotiate – but being Bertarelli, he's not talking about just negotiating a solution to the impasse of the 33rd America's Cup. He’s thrown all the cards on the table, insisting that the Deed of Gift itself is changed to completely reformulate the Cup for his vision. And if he can’t get agreement on this, he’ll chose to race in cats, saying: ‘If this revision of the governing documents of the America's Cup cannot be achieved, we will have to accept the GGYC challenge under the Deed of Gift.’

The statement is here and asks three questions – they are fundamental to the nature of the America’s Cup:

‘Should the Defender automatically be qualified for the final AC Match or should all teams start on equal footings?

‘Should the schedule of venues and content of regulations be announced several cycles in advance allowing planning and funding?

‘Should the governance of the Cup become permanent and be managed by entities representing past and current trustees as well as competing teams?’

For a more extensive outline of what these ideas might mean for the Cup, there is also an interview by Alinghi’s Grant Simmer with BYM News, who appear to have become the team's news outlet of choice. Or maybe it's just because few of the rest of us can actually be bothered to pick up the phone and ask a few questions - and I include myself in that. Anyway, Bertarelli also says that he’s spoken to Larry Ellison about these ideas, and reckons that he is supportive. The New York Yacht Club (NYYC) – the original trustees – have also confirmed that they are willing to join discussions on the basis of Bertarelli’s three points.

Charles H. Townsend, the present NYYC Commodore said, ‘We were approached earlier in the year by Mr. Ernesto Bertarelli of Societe Nautique de Geneve (SNG), the current holder of the Cup. We concluded that given our club's founding association with the competition we can work impartially to assist in the development of initiatives to preserve and build competition for the oldest international trophy in sport, and ensure that it will endure as a premiere global sporting event for generations to come.’ The NYYC’s full statement is here.

As you’d expect, the response from the sailing community has been mixed. Leading the charge against is Bob Fisher, with an open letter to Bertarelli in the sailing newsletter, Scuttlebutt. Others are a little skeptical about Bertarelli’s timing – over at Sail-World, Richard Gladwell was wondering why Bertarelli had chosen to do this now, rather than when he won the Cup back in July.

The answer would appear to be that it’s either a last, desperate effort to bring his vision of the America’s Cup future into being. Or a misdirect – as suggested by Oracle’s spokesman, Tom Ehman in a New York Times story, ‘We just hope that this letter is not intended to distract from the important question of getting A.C. 33 and our challenge on track.’

I suspect that it’s a little of both – Berterelli has been persistent on this theme of modernization of the Cup since he started to get involved. But it also gives him a let out from the current circumstances, where he is being blamed by everyone - from the other Challengers through the spectators to the burghers of Valencia - for the hold-ups in getting the next Cup organised. If this final toss of the chips onto the table works, then Bertarelli gets what he’s always wanted. If it doesn’t, then he can hold his hands up, tell everyone he tried his best, but well, we’re just going to have to settle this in catamarans…

And Alinghi should have the advantage in a catamaran match – if I remember rightly, they don’t have to announce the venue until a month before the event. Oracle will be building a boat to perform in anything from 5 knots to 40, while Alinghi can tailor it to the windsurfing breezes of Tarifa or the light air of Capri. With this edge, Bertarelli may well fancy his chances in multi-hulls, after all that sailing on the Swiss Lakes. And another win would allow him to pass go, collect £200 and start again with another, watertight, Challenger of Record and his Protocol of choice.

But it’s an advantage that money – which Ellison has plenty of – can overcome. Why build one catamaran, when you can build three or four…?


Mark Chisnell ©