America's Cup Diary - October 2006

It has been a busy few weeks for Ernesto Bertarelli. At the end of August he flew over to Newport, Rhode Island, to compete in the Rolex Farr 40 World Championships, a regatta that he won at his first attempt five years ago in England. This time he no longer had beginner's luck on his side, although 6th out of a hot fleet of 37 boats wasn't bad going for someone who hadn't sailed this demanding boat much in recent years. Bertarelli showed the occasional flashes of brilliance that earned him this toughest of sailing titles in 2001, but on this occasion wasn't consistent enough to string a series together. Even so, the Swiss businessman enjoyed his return to the class, which insists that only the owner is permitted to steer his boat.

This must be quite refreshing for Bertarelli and indeed fellow America's Cup campaigner Vincenzo Onorato, who went on to win this year's Rolex Farr 40 Worlds. Both are excellent sailors in their own right, and while they are seen regularly racing on board their America's Cup yachts, it is never in the hallowed role of helmsman. No doubt next year in Valencia they will be seen on board during competition but in a minor role, most likely operating the running backstays and adding some muscle to the grinding pedestal at the back of the boat. They know that to stand any chance of success in the Cup requires professional helmsmen of the highest calibre.

At least they get to be part of the action, though, in a way that the owner of a top-flight football club or Formula One team could never hope to do. But what every sailor grows up dreaming of is of helming his own America's Cup yacht. Only Larry Ellison, owner of BMW ORACLE Racing, dares to take the wheel of his yacht while racing and even then it is only when Chris Dickson has already steered the boat to a comfortable lead over the opposition.

So the Farr 40 gives the likes of Bertarelli and Onorato the chance to sate their helming desires, with the added benefit of racing in a one-design class where little if any technological development is permitted. This is a straight fight on the race course, the only determinant between winning and losing being sailing ability. Of course this is a double-edged sword. If you win, you can take all the credit, but if you lose, there is nowhere to hide. You can't point the finger at dodgy technology, because your boat is exactly the same as the boat next door.

Ultimately, even in the high-expense arena of the America's Cup, as Dennis Conner was wont to say, there is still "no excuse to lose". But Onorato knows that he will always struggle to compete against the super-billionaires like Bertarelli and Ellison. Money talks in the America's Cup, and the more you have, generally the faster you go. So it must have been particularly pleasing for Onorato to score a victory in the Farr 40 over his rival, where money is a less significant factor in success.

The rivalry between these two yachts was not purely confined to the owners. The two tacticians also have somewhat of a history together. Brad Butterworth was on board Alinghi, getting some rare ‘face time' with his boss Bertarelli, while on board Mascalzone Latino was Butterworth's old mate Russell Coutts. For all the fact that Coutts has been out of the Cup scene for the past couple of years, his performance in Newport showed that he has lost none of his magic. By helping Onorato to a Farr 40 victory that the Neapolitan shipping magnate has desperately been seeking to secure since 1999, Coutts continues to add weight to the view that he is the best sailor in the world right now. Judging by the body language between Coutts and Bertarelli in Newport, however, there is no sign of the prodigal son making an imminent return to the Alinghi fold. Maybe one day they will bury their differences but the entente cordiale looks unlikely this side of the 32nd America's Cup.

Just a couple of weeks after Newport, Bertarelli sold the family's 64.5 per cent stake in the biotechnology company Serono, which he has run for the past 10 years since his father died. The deal with the German pharmaceutical company Merck values the Swiss company at SFr 16.1 billion ($12.9 billion), and allows Bertarelli more time to focus on Alinghi and the America's Cup.

For the winter, 60 members of Alinghi including sailors, designers and shorecrew are moving out of Valencia and to Dubai for some warm-weather training and two-boat testing, most likely between 2003 Cup winner SUI-64 and the as yet unraced SUI-91. Asked why the need to relocate, skipper Brad Butterworth says it is all about the weather. "Last year we sailed in Valencia for most of the winter and we found that the conditions we need to test got very difficult from October and didn't get better until April. We struggled to get any worthwhile testing done and really it was a waste of time.

"For this winter we looked further afield and our met office, Jon Bilger and his team, drew up a short list of locations and came back with the Caribbean or Dubai. Grant Simmer then went and visited several of the locations and we chose Dubai."

One of the team's helmsmen Ed Baird draws a comparison with golf: "A lot of people who understand the game of golf, realise that in winter the ball doesn't travel as far because the air is more dense. It is the same thing in sailing. The 12-knot wind that propels our boats in the winter months is different to the 12-knot wind that propels our boats in the summer months and we don't want to develop equipment that is super-fast in 12 knots of cold air and find out that it doesn't work so well in warm air."

However, the rumour mongers around Valencia claim that the trip to Dubai is a first toe in the water for Alinghi to see if this could be a future venue for the 33rd America's Cup. Dubai is awash with cash and the wind is warm and strong, so if Alinghi successfully defends the Cup next year, could it be that Dubai will become the host in say, 2010? Alinghi have said nothing to suggest this is true, but it's fun to speculate.

 






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