Let’s start with the premise that Larry Ellison and his Oracle Racing CEO, Russell Coutts, set out after winning the Cup in 2010 to “normalize” the beast that is America’s Cup competition. Their intent was/is to transform Cup racing into a profitable, predictably organized professional sport. If you are just now entering the conversation, I apologize that we cannot, short of going book-length, paint a full picture of their motivations, the bets they made, the failures, the successes, the tragedies and near-tragedies, the prickly, contentious beginnings to 2013 Cup racing or the brilliant, odds-defying, turnaround defense. Rather, I will point out that while the 2013 match ended on a tremendous high, nothing is normalized.
The beast is not easily tamed.
During its comeback, Oracle Racing was almost caught without a ready-to-go “hip-pocket challenge,” which secures leverage to largely direct the course of the next event. Otherwise, by the language of the Cup’s Deed of Gift, it’s a challenger-driven game. Australia’s Hamilton Island Yacht Club came late to the table, but with Iain Murray in charge—Murray being a longtime player and, most recently, CEO of America’s Cup Race Management for AC34—the challenger has been no pushover. The proof is that release of the Protocol for the 35th Defense was delayed until early June, a full 220 negotiating days after race 17 sealed Oracle Racing’s victory: victory in the name of the Golden Gate Yacht Club, victory for an institution on the San Francisco city front—the spectators’ celebrated “50-yard line” in 2013—a city front that was strangely silent when a 101-word notice appeared on americascup.com confirming the competition’s long-rumored move to a new city for 2017.
Key points of the new program include racing in 2015-16 aboard AC45 catamarans (probably not converted to foils) with about six events per year. As before, the effort to graft a circuit of races onto an eventual match between two boats requires that the AC45 races count, somehow, when racing shifts to larger foiling cats. This time, AC45 racing will seed double round-robin qualifiers in AC62s. From there, four teams will advance to a semifinal round now labeled the “playoffs,” with the first two teams to win five points advancing to a final round that will determine who gets to race in the final America’s Cup match.
What’s new: as of press time, with San Francisco out, San Diego, Chicago and Bermuda remain in the hunt as possible venues, with no guarantee of a final decision soon. Only the playoffs are guaranteed to be staged in the same waters as the match for the Cup. Each challenger is allowed to build one boat to the new AC62 rule. The defender may build two. Strict limits on launch dates and sailing time make that less lopsided than it sounds, but a provision allowing the defender to participate alongside challengers in the qualifying races will likely linger as a festering sore.
On the plus side, the release of the Protocol resolved enough questions to allow Sir Ben Ainslie to officially announce his long-expected British challenge, in association with the Royal Ocean Racing Club. By press time Luna Rossa had also formally announced a challenge and Sweden’s Artemis was fully expected to launch another campaign. That makes four challengers in all. It will be interesting to see how many more sign on by the August 8 deadline.