It went through the same gestation period as a baby, but after nine painful months the Protocol for the 35th America’s Cup finally emerged blinking into the daylight. Agreeing the rules for any edition of the America’s Cup is never an easy process, and this one has been no different.
Actually, sometimes it has been too easy, and especially in recent years due to the weakness of the Challengers of Record, first with the failed Spanish challenge of 2007 - a stooge of Alinghi - and the equally poor challenge of Mascalzone Latino in 2010 when the Italian team agreed far too readily with Oracle’s plans. By definition, the Challenger of Record is meant to challenge the Defender, not cosy up to them.
On balance, the Challenger of Record for the 35th Cup, Team Australia representing Hamilton Island Yacht Club, appears to have done a reasonable job. Already it looks likely that we’ll see more than the three challengers that showed up for last year’s Louis Vuitton Cup in San Francisco. In addition to Australia, there is Sir Ben Ainslie’s British challenge, the return of Luna Rossa and Artemis Racing, a reasonable chance of Emirates Team New Zealand scraping the funds together, with France and China an outside bet.
So, what do we know? That the next Cup will be take place in summer 2017, in AC62s, a scaled-down version of the wing-masted, hydrofoiling AC72s of 2013, and requiring a crew of just eight sailors. At the time of the announcement in early June, Oracle Team USA said the venue was yet to be determined, but by the end of 2014 we would know which of Bermuda, Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco would be playing host to the 2017 Cup. I, and virtually every other observer of the Cup, believed that the other three names were being cited merely as bargaining chips in order to get the intransigent city of San Francisco to improve its offer. How could any other venue live up to the incredible spectacle of 2013, with such reliably strong and predictable winds sweeping under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the natural amphitheatre of San Francisco Bay?
So it was an enormous shock to discover just a week after the Protocol’s announcement that Russell Coutts had sent an email to the mayor of San Francisco, Ed Lee, saying: “Given the tight timeline and demands from prospective teams to confirm the final venue, it has been necessary to continue reducing the shortlist of candidate cities. We have therefore taken the difficult decision to no longer consider San Francisco as a possible candidate to host AC35.”
Days earlier, Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton had said it was virtually impossible to nail down sponsorship agreements with commercial partners whilst the venue remained unconfirmed. There were also some clauses in the Protocol that - on first reading - seemed ridiculously unfair. How, for example, could Iain Murray, former race director of the 34th Cup and now CEO of Team Australia, have agreed to allowing the Defender to build two AC62s while each challenger team is restricted to just one?
On closer reading of the Protocol, however, Dalton admitted that maybe the document isn’t so bad after all. The Defender’s second boat is required to be constructed from the same mould as the first - with modifications limited to no more than 20% of the hull surface, which is the same as for the Challengers. “We found some checks and balances that are not necessarily apparent at first reading,” said Dalton, Oracle’s most outspoken critic during the last Cup. “Our conclusion is that we can mount a competitive challenge, with a realistic chance of winning the 35th America’s Cup.” Of course, to some extent, Dalton has to say that. He’s chasing sponsorship dollars to keep Emirates Team New Zealand alive. But Dalts is nobody’s poodle, and so maybe this Protocol ain’t so bad after all.
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