America's Cup Diary - August 2007

Will we ever see a better America's Cup in our lifetime than the 32nd edition? Highly unlikely. Although it didn't go down to the wire like Australia II's historical 4-3 comeback against Liberty in 1983 - the match which changed the Cup forever - the racing in the 32nd edition was far more compelling.

Alinghi had been expecting to beat Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) 5-0, a whitewash just as we had seen in the previous three matches going back to 1995. Russell Coutts, who talks daily to his old mate and skipper of Alinghi, Brad Butterworth, predicted a comfortable win for the Defender. Confidence was running high in the Swiss camp.

To add spice to the proceedings, Ernesto Bertarelli berated Grant Dalton for suggesting that the Kiwis would introduce nationality rules to teams if Emirates Team New Zealand succeeded in taking the Cup back downunder. Although Dalton never went into detail over what sort of nationality rule he had in mind, Alinghi would certainly be one of the many small nations who would suffer. Compared with ETNZ - with 15 of the 17 from New Zealand - there was only one Swiss sailor on board Alinghi, and that was Bertarelli himself.

The Swiss billionaire, who had made a NZ$10 million loan to the Kiwi team in 2004 when they were struggling for funding, interpreted Dalton's words as an attack on Alinghi, telling the New York Times: "The nationality rule he's speaking about is obviously mainly directed towards Alinghi, so I guess that's the thank-you note for helping him get his team together. If he was to win, that basically would put three-quarters of the people around this harbour out of work. And more surprisingly so, they are probably friends of his, since a lot of teams have Kiwis in their ranks."

So, much more than a yacht race was at stake when both teams crossed the start line of Race 1. In the moderate to strong conditions, Alinghi's ‘wonder boat' SUI 100 was expected to wipe the floor. It was a close match all the way around the course, however, with the Defender perhaps looking just a touch quicker downwind. But it looked like game on.

Alinghi's American helmsman Ed Baird is not known for his starting prowess, whereas in the pre-starts Dean Barker looked on top of his game, taking control of the starts and giving the Kiwis the early advantage in a number of races. In Race 2 the Kiwis got much the better start, but SUI 100 sailed higher and faster below NZL 92, and forced Barker to tack away.

The Swiss took control of the match and led for the first lap, with Butterworth opting for a loose cover on his opponent. A little too loose, as it happened, because up the second windward leg the Kiwis came back at the Swiss on a good windshift and seized the lead. Although SUI 100 looked fast on the final run to the finish, ETNZ held on for a 13-second victory. Brad Butterworth's run of 16 consecutive victories in the America's Cup had finally been broken. It was a vital day for New Zealand's confidence.

Race 3 was postponed for two hours as the race committee waited for the fickle breeze to settle. The windstrength was good enough but the direction was very unstable. However at a minute before 17:00 hours, the latest possible start time for the day, the committee lowered the postponement flag and started a sequence. Off the start line Ed Baird had much the better start, forcing Barker to tack away just before the gun fired. However, three minutes up the course the Kiwis hooked into an enormous right-hand windshift, tacked and sailed away from Alinghi, stranded far out to the left.

NZL 92 sailed to a seemingly insurmountable lead, until a spinnaker mishandling at the leeward gate - combined with mid-bowman Jeremy Lomas briefly falling overboard but hanging on for dear life - allowed Alinghi right back into the game. Butterworth took the lead around the final turning mark, but then appeared reluctant to engage the Kiwis in a gybing duel downwind. Instead, he allowed massive separation to develop between the boats, and when they eventually converged again for the finish, it was NZL 92 that had regained the lead. The Kiwis won by 25 seconds. The Swiss were outraged. Alinghi crew members compared the race to tiddlywinks, a lottery, a joke. Bertarelli compared it to gambling in Las Vegas.

The media interpreted Alinghi's reaction as sour grapes. To most observers, they had just witnessed perhaps the most exciting, unpredictable match race in America's Cup history. It was a classic, and on this day the Kiwis were the better team. The score was now 2-1 in their favour, and the underdog looked on the verge of causing a major upset.

It was inevitable that Race 4 would be an anticlimax. Ed Baird scored the better start, and exerted a half-boatlength's early advantage on Dean Barker, as SUI 100 trickled away from NZL 92 in moderate breezes, the Swiss boat looking just a tiny bit quicker. The Swiss extended the lead around the race course, winning by 30 seconds, and levelling the score 2-2.

That proved to be the turning point of the regatta. New Zealand's superior starting ability would continue to give the challenger an early lead, but Alinghi would prevail by the end of each match. In Race 5, a tiny round hole in the spinnaker led to the sail exploding while the Kiwis were in the lead, allowing Alinghi to sweep past and hold the lead to the finish.

In Race 6 the Kiwis sailed a good first leg, still leading at the leeward gate but opting for the usually less popular left-hand exit mark. Butterworth opted for the right-hand mark, and when a small windshift came in from the right, Alinghi was right back in the game. Superior tacking ability took the Swiss ahead of New Zealand yet again, and now the Defender was at 4-2, just one match away from overall victory.

If we thought Race 3 had been the best America's Cup race in history, it was soon forgotten in the excitement of Race 7. Dean Barker again looked to have the upper hand at the start, and won the left side of the line. However Ed Baird was able to live on the windward hip of NZL 92 - in a position where normally a boat would have to tack away from turbulent breeze. Eventually Alinghi did have to tack, but they still held on to the lead at the windward mark, having initiated a luffing match just before rounding the mark.

Downwind the Swiss seemed in disarray, the spinnaker flailing away at times, simply through poor communication between the trimmer and grinders. New Zealand pounced on the mistake, surging into the lead. Again Terry Hutchinson opted for the left-hand gate, aware that he was repeating the move that had failed the Kiwis in the previous race, but confident that the stronger breeze would serve them well. Yet again, though, Butterworth's option for the right-hand gate mark proved a winning choice as he got back on level terms up the final windward leg.

A tacking duel ensued until the Kiwis realised this was a losing battle for them. As they sailed over the port layline for the final mark, with Alinghi behind but to their right, they attempted an ambitious ‘dial-down' manoeuvre, in a bid to pass behind SUI 100 and accelerate out the other side to the windward mark. It was a gross misjudgement, a moment of panic that cost the New Zealanders dear as the umpires gave them a penalty for failing to keep clear of Alinghi on starboard tack.

With Alinghi now leading by four boatlengths and a penalty in hand, it looked in the bag for the Defender. On the final approach to the finish, just a couple of hundred metres from the line, Alinghi's spinnaker pole flew off the mast as a fitting exploded for no apparent reason. At the same time the breeze did an almost complete about turn and dropped dramatically. The Kiwis responded better to the change in conditions and surged past the leader. Just before the finish, Barker spun the boat up into the breeze to take the penalty tack. Alinghi was now closing fast, and as the downspeed Kiwis tacked back, the Swiss crossed the line simultaneously. No one knew who had won - until the blue flag went up on the committee boat, pronouncing Alinghi the winner of Race 7, and winner of the 32nd

It was the most dramatic of conclusions to an incredible Match. The Kiwis were inconsolable, the Swiss ecstatic. Bertarelli was pleased to have won not just a sporting contest but the battle for the future of the Cup, and that means no nationality rules. "We enjoy being able to meet and compete against people from different backgrounds and we would never lock anyone out of this competition," said Bertarelli. "I never thought when we started, that we would be locked out of it. When I said that we were fighting for our survival, I didn't know how right I was, and here we are. Alive and kicking. And I'm looking forward to continue."

Forty-eight hours after that epic race, Alinghi and the event organising body ACM presented the Protocol Governing the Thirty Third America's Cup. This is the blueprint that will shape the next event, jointly agreed by the Defender, Alinghi, and the Challenger of Record, the hastily-formed Club Nautico Espanol de Vela. A yacht club with no headquarters, it also appears to lack any sort of backbone, as it has signed a document that puts the Defender in an incredible position of power. Perhaps the biggest shock - among many - is that the Defender is granted the right to participate in as many stages of the challenger series as it chooses, with the exception of the challenger final itself. The challengers have lost control of their own regatta.

Part of what makes the America's Cup so special is that the Defender gets to set the rules of the next event, which is what makes it the hardest sailing regatta in the world. The Cup has never been a level playing field, and Alinghi has taken full advantage of this, far more so than in the 32nd Cup. The headline news from the Protocol is that the next event will be held in bigger, faster 90-foot boats, although the design rule may not be published until the end of the year. No dates and no venue have yet been decided (although Valencia remains in the frame provided the city stumps up the cash), which leaves the 33rd America's Cup in a state of limbo.

The 32nd America's Cup will go down as one of the all-time greats. An epic match race from start to finish. The 5-2 scoreline belies just how close the Kiwis came to toppling Alinghi. It was all a little too close for comfort for Ernesto Bertarelli and his team. The Protocol for the 33rd Cup has been designed to ensure the Defender returns to the safer waters of a 5-0 whitewash, and the Spanish Challenger of Record has been a willing conspirator in permitting this to happen.

After a week's silence from the challengers, Larry Ellison could take no more. He issued his own challenge through the Golden Gate Yacht Club (GGYC), claiming that the challenge from the hastily-formed Club Nautico Espanol de Vela (CNEV) was invalid. A letter from the GGYC said: "It appears that CNEV is a new yacht club specifically created for this challenge and, as such, fails to meet the requirements as defined by the [1857] Deed of Gift." One of the Deed of Gift's requirements is that a challenging club conducts an annual regatta on the sea.

The letter continued: "CNEV has never conducted a regatta and cannot be a legitimate challenger. Furthermore, the race protocol for the 33rd America's Cup is invalid because they fail to specify the rules for the next Cup by omitting a specific date, location and class of boat."

Ellison has thrown the ball back into Bertarelli's court. Either the Spanish challenge is withdrawn, or the software billionaire from San Francisco is likely to resort to legal action.

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