The America’s Cup is the realm of surprises. After the beautiful and crowded edition in Valencia in 2007, one would expect the next one to be at least at the same level. Never had a prediction been more wrong. The first controversy came two days after Alinghi’s victorious defence when Ernesto Bertarelli’s Société Nautique de Genève announced the protocol for the next edition. The first twist was the introduction of a new class of boats with an overall length of 90 feet (27 and a half metres), much larger than before, and a crew of over 20 members.
Read the previous episode: America’s Cup 2007, Alinghi wins without Coutts
However, even more disconcerting for potential challengers was the date of the competition, specifically by 2011 but not before 2009. This spelt a significant advantage for Alinghi that had made the easy choice of picking the Club Nautico Espanol de Vela as their Challenger of Record.
Eighteen (wasted) entries
As ever, the quibble laid in the Deed of Gift. For a challenge to be regular, it has to come from a yacht club that holds at least one regatta each year. The CNEV did not have these requirements and so the Golden Gate Yacht Club filed an unprecedented lawsuit to force the SNG to relinquish the role and hand it over to them.
Obviously, it was above all a clash of personalities between Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli, with the former also counting on a (very) bitter ex such as Russell Coutts, whom he had hired as CEO of Oracle Racing. Almost three years of court sentences and appeals went by, leaving a trail of controversy in their wake. Unprecedentedly, the preparations for two different America’s Cup events were underway not long before the races were slated to start on 2 April 2009. There was the one of AC Management, a company in Bertarelli’s hands, that nevertheless had collected no fewer than 18 entries from syndicates by the end of 2008, six of which Italian (an absolute record), and then there was Ellison-Coutts’. No peaceful agreement was found even later, despite SNG’s concession of GGYC as the new Challenger of Record. The two parties found themselves before the New York courts nine times. The matter was eventually settled, annulling all pending litigations, during the last hearing on 29 March 2010. The regattas in Valencia could start.
Russell Coutts’ shenanigans
Alinghi’s attempt to race in the UAE or Australia fell on deaf ears but the real result of the diatribe was the demise of the planned AC 90 and the return to multihulls after 1988. Coutts’ intuition was clear. From the very first lawsuit, he drove the GGYC to declare that should he prevail in the dispute he would force the defender to a head-to-head challenge, excluding everyone else, on multihulls but with a 90-feet waterline length and beam, just like the monohull conjectured by Bertarelli.
He added a little big stab. According to the rules, an America’s Cup boat must be built and assembled in the country of origin (Switzerland, in this case) before reaching the sea. Whilst a monohull, however huge, can be loaded onto a lorry and driven to the Mediterranean, a multihull with 30-metre floats would never manage to leave Switzerland by land. This extra (and expensive) difficulty for the defender would be overcome by resorting to a Russian mega helicopter that would fly Alinghi over the Alps, creating a spectacle never seen again in the history of the trophy.
Trimaran versus catamaran
In principle, the Valencia duel in February 2010 was fascinating from a technical point of view. Oracle Racing’s trimaran certainly enjoyed a considerable time advantage in design, construction and development. Its first launch had been in August 2008, practically one year before Alinghi’s flying transfer. Despite this, the experts favoured Bertarelli’s team that was relying on a presumed superiority in light breezes. The smaller sail area compared to Oracle Racing’s would be compensated by the boat’s lighter weight and better manoeuvrability.
But the New Zealand genius dropped another ace when, in a move that would prove to be decisive, Oracle’s engineers replaced the mainsail with a rigid wing mounted on the mast. Aside from a few valiant actions, the deal was sealed on 12 February and again on the 14th. Russell Coutts and James Spithill didn’t miss a beat on Ellison’s boat. Incidentally, there are also two Italians in the crew, Matteo Plazzi from Ravenna and Simone de Mari from Rome. So, the America’s Cup returned to the United States after a fifteen-year absence and, curiously, the man responsible for the feat was the very one who had snatched the cup from the hosts in San Diego.