In high-end sailing as in the business world (really, are the two worlds all that separate in these elite niches?), talent is recognized and rewarded—or the competition buys it up. In this case, the competition isn’t even sure if it’s going to get a shot at competing, and the whole great gig known as the America’s Cup hangs in limbo, awaiting word from Justice Kahn as to whether the next Cup will be a Deed of Gift Challenge (likely to be fought out in a private duel between Alinghi and BMW/Oracle in maxi-catamarans) or a more-conventional contest open to other teams. If the first case, there will be only two games in town for the sailors, making each individual spot that much more valuable and job security that much more fleeting; if the latter pans out, Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) has again suffered a talent drain of the kind that led Russell Coutts, Brad Butterworth, et al. to defect to Alinghi for the 2003 Cup.

Here’s what’s happened recently, in behind-the-scenes wrangling, as Judge Kahn spends his time pontificating over his decisions. Coutts recently headhunted Jono Macbeth, 35, who has used his talents as a grinder on behalf of ETNZ since he first helped to defend the Cup in 2000. Macbeth was a respected member of ETNZ’s core group, and so his defection has definitely hit home in Auckland. Next on Coutts’s shopping list was Andrew Taylor, known to his friends as “Meat”. Meat sailed with ETNZ in 1987–1988, 1992, 1995, and 2000, and with Luna Rosa in 2007. Since Team Luna Rosa disbanded after the 2007 Cup, Coutts nabbed not only Taylor, but also Kiwi Alan Smith, whose resume includes two stints, in 1987–1988 and in 1992, with ETNZ.

According to other reports, Coutts is also in the process of courting others, including some minor players in the ETNZ organization. Early speculation has it that the remaining core of ETNZ will remain faithful, and the Kiwis have put most of their major players on retainer. For the sailors, getting a call from a man armed with Larry Ellison’s checkbook is a good thing, but for the sailing community it signals the fact that the Cup represents a legitimate career path for some sailors, and that if the good tidings of the 2007 Cup are to continue, these sailors need a viable income stream, not one that is subject to the whims of billionaires. So, while some talent has switched shirts, ETNZ, along with the rest of the world, must await Judge Kahn’s ruling before the games can continue.

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Updated: March 14, 2008

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