Hope you all enjoyed a relaxing Christmas and New Year break – because the Alinghi lawyers certainly didn’t…

The Swiss team has followed up their pre-Christmas barrage of new legal issues with an appeal posted in the New York State Supreme court on the 27th December. The latest contention is that the Golden Gate Yacht Club’s (GGYC) challenge (on behalf of Larry Ellison’s Oracle team) is invalid, because it didn’t accurately describe the challenging yacht. The court documents have been posted on the America’s Cup website, along with a press release.

The GGYC’s challenge can still be found on their website and you’ll see that it describes a keel yacht of ninety feet length and beam. As soon as everyone saw this, they thought… multi-hull. But Alinghi are arguing that this assumption is at odds with the words ‘keel yacht’ which implies a mono-hull. They reckon the GGYC challenge should go the same way as that of the Club Nautico Espanol de Vela (CNEV), because a ‘keel yacht’ or mono-hull to those dimensions would be so misshapen that it wouldn’t be fit for the race course.

This is what Lucien Masmejan, lead counsel for Alinghi’s challenging club, Société Nautique de Genève (SNG), had to say – ‘The purpose of the boat certificate is to give the Defender a precise idea of what the challenging boat will be in order to prepare its Defense. The history of the Cup has shown how important was the adequacy of the certificate with regard to the validity of the challenge… We want to make sure this is the boat they would show up with and not a multi-hull, or their challenge would deem to be invalid.’

But my reading of the recent history of the Cup would indicate the opposite – the New York State Supreme court had no problem with Dennis Connor defending in a catamaran when Michael Fay turned up in his 135 foot mono-hull in 1988. So if the defender can use whatever type of boat comes to hand, then why do the semantics of the challenger’s boat certificate matter? I suspect they don't, and I also suspect that many at Alinghi know this - as we've suggested before, they're just stalling. They need to put the date of the Cup back as far as possible to catch up with Oracle's multi-hull programme, and this is just a legal tool to that end.

Understandably, the GGYC’s response was swift, posting comments on their website the same day, ‘If these arguments were valid they would have been presented months ago,’ according to Tom Ehman, Oracle’s spokesman. ‘But unfortunately they now look like a rather desperate measure by Alinghi's new lawyers. We are confident they will be rejected by the Court.’ Most observers are giving these arguments equally short shrift – for instance, Richard Gladwell does a nice job of taking them apart in a Sail-World article, and it will be interesting to see what Justice Cahn makes of them when the parties return to court on the 14th January.

In the meantime, GGYC and Oracle then followed up their initial response with a statement from CEO Russell Coutts, two days later. It told us what most people have expected for some time – that Oracle will compete for the next America’s Cup under the basic provisions of the Deed of Gift. Coutts reckoned, ‘We had hoped to negotiate a conventional regatta under the Deed’s mutual consent provisions. But the Defender has made it clear to us and the America’s Cup community that they will not negotiate. We are now fully committed to a multi-hull event in 2008.’ Someone, somewhere started laying up carbon fibre on a bloody great multi-hull at about the same time as that announcement was posted - if they hadn't already.

If nothing else, this clears the air – it’s now a straight fight between Ellison and Bertarelli and their chosen intermediaries, both legal and sailing. But it’s obviously not good news for any of the other teams, who can no longer pretend that they are doing anything other than standing on the sidelines, watching. Sir Keith Mills at Team Origin had already announced a retrenchment back in mid-December, ‘My principal goal now is to keep TEAMORIGIN together so as to be able to compete for the America’s Cup at some time in the future. Without any certainty today as to when, where and how that will be I am reluctantly forced to slow things down and stand the team down from full operational mode.’ There are similar noises coming out of Team New Zealand, United Internet Team Germany and Desafio Espanol.

So it’s a wintry New Year for the America’s Cup community, although in reality, things aren’t that much worse than last time. There’s still every chance that there will be a multi-challenge Cup in 2011 – a four year gap, as there was between 2003 and 2007, and shorter than the endless wait between 1995 and 2000, when the Kiwis defended for the first time. But it could have been so different, and so many plans have been laid and lives altered, only for this to completely derail it all…

From the sailor’s point of view, the great thing about the Cup has always been the vast sums of money that some people are prepared to spend to win the thing. It doesn’t just mean good salaries; it means money for research and learning stuff about boats that doesn’t happen anywhere else. But the billionaire bloated budgets come at a price – the whole game is played at the whim of the owners, and every so often, something like this is going to happen.

But there is a danger that the influx of out-of-work Cup sailors into other areas of the sport – like the TP52’s for instance – might have the same impact as during the last Cup hiatus in 1988-90. There was a marked increase in professionalism in the old International Offshore Rule (IOR) boats, as the AC class of ’87 looked around for somewhere else to cut their competitive teeth. And the 1989 Admiral’s Cup turned out to be the beginning of the end for both that regatta and the IOR (guilty as charged, m’lud).

But I think things are different now – the Fremantle America’s Cup was a step change in the numbers and outlook of professional sailors. And while both the numbers and the professional standards have been growing steadily ever since then, I don’t think the 2007 Cup had a comparable, paradigm-shifting effect like the event twenty years earlier. So while you can expect to see the TP52 fleet gear up another level this summer, with Cup sailors and some teams focusing on it as an alternative outlet for their activities, hopefully the class and the sport have developed sufficiently for that to be a good thing, not a bad one.

And things are still bright-ish from the perspective of the America’s Cup spectator. I suspect a catamaran challenge is going to be well worth watching. Not for very long, mind you, but for those first few minutes of the first race, it’s going to be must-see, water-cooler entertainment of the highest order…

Mark Chisnell ©