By Kimball Livingston
Larry Ellison's would-be America's Cup challenger has been launched, and it's a monster—90 feet long and 90 feet wide and rocket-fast as a giant racing trimaran should be—leaving one question, which only a New York court can answer: Is this a bridge to nowhere?
Impressive, regardless, and probably a bit scary at times.
We see the tri sailing here out of Anacortes, Washington, where it was built in a special-purpose facility. Multihull great Franck Cammas was imported to drive the beast, working alongside Russell Coutts, who stands at the organizational helm of Ellison's BMW Oracle Racing. The team has announced plans to move to San Diego as the season changes, but for starters they're still close to their build facility should the (ahem) need arise.
Meanwhile, if you are blissfully unaware that the America's Cup is mired in legal controversy, no one will blame you if you choose to blissfully stop reading right here.
Still with us?
Beware of fallout.
"Avalanche of unintended consequences" is the shorthand I use for events since the (mostly) bright days of the last Cup. Out of the euphoria marking the end of the 2007 match in Valencia that went seven races and promised to put the Cup on the map of predictable sporting events came something different and unexpected, a legal standoff over control of the future of the event. It's been going on now for a year and change.
Maybe, just maybe, the appeal now pending in the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court will be the last one. Or maybe not.
The nub of the legal argument is whether or not Club Nutico Espaol de Vela, hastily and cozily assembled to file as Challenger of Record and subsequently signatory to a lapdog Protocol, was or is a viable and properly constituted yacht club, therefore eligible to act as Challenger of Record.
The issues are much larger than that legal nub, but that's what we're down to arguing. The protocol, as released in July 2007, handed total control to the defender, including the right to name and dismiss judges without negotiation and to dismiss challengers at will. It has been amended and softened since, and the party line has it that the original protocol was merely "a draft." But to any signatory, it could have been nothing but a legal document.
Alinghi also changed the type of boat to a new 90-foot monohull, shaking up what had been a very narrow design process producing boats of similar speed.
Ellison, Challenger of Record for AC 32, countered with a wild-card challenge in a boat 90 feet long and 90 feet wide—which could only be a trimaran. The avowed purpose was to force a renegotiation of the protocol, and in fact a coalition of the major challengers of AC 32 joined Ellison in October 2007 to offer a compromise for an AC 33 that would have embraced the new 90-foot monohulls while returning the organizational structure to something resembling that of AC 32. Alinghi rejected the BMW Oracle challenge, rejected the coalition compromise offer, and went to court on Bertarelli's assertion: "It is not possible that we will lose. We have the best lawyers."
Those lawyers were replaced after they lost the first couple of rounds, but the very high-powered American firm now working for Alinghi turned all of that around on the most recent 3-2 appellate ruling.
Ellison's camp argues, I say plausibly, that CNEV is not a valid yacht club. Some time after losing the first few rounds in court, CNEV drifted off into an unattended, cobwebbed corner while Desafo Espaol, its former team, aligned itself with a genuine, longstanding Spanish club. That leaves the alleged Challenger of Record now without a team to challenge, just when an Appeals Court ruling has dumped the challenger role back into its lap, if only it had a lap.
So it goes, a mere sampling of the strange twists in this story. The America's Cup today is an Alice-in-Wonderland world that does not fit your "I'd Rather Be Sailing" bumper sticker.
Should the court sustain the most recent 3-2 Appeals Court ruling Switzerland's Ernesto Bertarelli as defender retains control of the next match, through Team Alinghi and the Socit Nautique de Genve. He can be expected to organize a match in 90-foot monohulls with multiple challengers and a surrounding atmosphere in which his every move is scrutinized for fairness. That's where this process was generated—in distrust—even before AC 32 was finished in Valencia. The most recent ruling shocked many analysts, went against a series of prior rulings, and as a split verdict was automatically subject to appeal.
Should the court overturn the most recent 3-2 Appeals Court ruling American Larry Ellison gains a measure of control as Challenger with his giant trimaran. Bertarelli will be forced to compete against it. Bertarelli is already building one or more boats to defend against this threat. Just what he is building he won't say, and nobody in his position would. It does not have to be a 90X90 trimaran, but it will be something he thinks can win. Such a match, governed by the Deed of Gift for cases where challenger and defender cannot agree to terms, would be a best-of-three over 19th-century-style courses specified in the Deed. Berteralli gets to choose the place.
THE BIG TRI
The canting mast is 158 feet tall, and there's a spare, you bet your bippy. A mainsail of 5,000 square feet. A beast. Four coffee grinders per tack and the crew were mostly wearing helmets. In the early sailing out of Anacortes, five support RIBs followed. Medical teams and divers were part of the complement, in case of capsize. Inviting speculation that (for example) the Swiss defenders might choose to build something easier to control, then race in a heavy-air venue.
But wind is never guaranteed, is it?
Imagine sitting down to a poker game where every card is a wild card.
Andrew Spithill was the wunderkind of AC 32, winning a pot of races on the starting line for Luna Rossa. Now he's on a steep learning curve at the elbow of Franck Cammas.
Spithill calls this "a new ball game.”