Errors of judgment
August 23, 2007, 3:50 pm
Filed under: America's Cup, Tosh

If life’s end of term report comes to the conclusion that the candidate was guilty of poor judgment, that is about as bad as it can be. If that poor judgment only affects the candidate, that is damning enough; if those judgments adversely affect a wider world, the guilt is compounded.

Those who love, are fascinated by, or just take a an interest in yacht racing are being let down at the highest level by poor judgment in two of the world’s top showcase events. A third can plead mitigation, but may have created a slippery slope for itself.

Invevitably, leading the march into weary frustration is the America’s Cup now that the first edict from the New York Supreme Court has been handed down by Justice Herman Cahn. The Societe Nautique de Geneve, through whom Ernesto Bertarelli’s Alinghi syndicate has successfully both challenged and defended, has, apparently, chosen to ignore the 22 August deadline to respond to a petition lodged by the Golden Gate Yacht Club at the behest of Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle. Was that an error of judgment?Courts take themselves very seriously and don’t like being ignored.

The petition claimed that the challenge from the Club Nautico Espanol de Vela and accepted within seconds of Alinghi beating Team New Zealand 5-2 in July 2007 was invalid. It further asked that GGYC’s own challenge, for a race in 10 months (July 2008) in a boat up to 90 feet long and with a 90-foot beam, should be accepted by SNG.

Further detail is available in earlier missives, but the future is of more concern. After a long silence, America’s Cup Management, Bertarelli’s vehicle for drawing up the new protocol and partners with Valencia (both city and region) and the Spanish government in running the whole event said, rather feebly, that it was “disppointed”. Even detractors can only sympathise with ACM’s communications machine for being so flaccid. That is the fault, and it is an error of judgment, of its masters.

Public relations should be a matter of clever stategy, brilliant and varied implementation, and the ability to coach non-protagonists, like dumb-cluck coporates, in the public bit of the relations. But they have to back the project and the projection of it. Too often, throughout industry and commerce, public relations means setting up a buffer zone based on the mushroom principle of keeping the public in the dark and only when necessary feeding the stupid suckers on bullshit.

It is entirely wrong to keep on saying that, to understand the America’s Cup, you first have to understand that it is a winner takes all event. No-one is much more than a temporary steward of something that will be passed on – even Ernesto Bertarelli does not expect to live for another 156 years. In the meantime, the public has been invited to be one of the interested parties. To be autocratic has often proved to be an error of judgment in the long term.

Now both Bertarelli and Ellison seem, if anything, to be digging their heels in for a personal knife fight. Ellison’s  statement following the court’s decision surely said that talking would be far better than litigation, which could be seen as giving ground before the fight had even begun. But there was no similar hint in the response from ACM and behind the scenes talks involving Russell Coutts, Brad Butterworth, Tom Ehman and Hamish Ross seem to be running into the sand.

The trio of Bertarelli, Michel Bonnefous (president of ACM) and Lucien Masmejan (Bertarelli’s lawyer) is setting the tone. It is their judgment that will be judged, as will that of Ellison, who claims support in the court of public opinion but should know better than to leave anything to anything as chancy as that.

Chance was seen as likely to be the determining factor on the Olympic Games track chosen for sailing by the Chinese, endorsed by the IOC and fought not hard enough by the International Sailing Federation. Fans in Britain must be happy with the lottery as they bagged five golds and silver, saw recognised talent rise to the top, and laid down a marker that, whatever the sailors may think, must have sent shivers down the spines of many rival national coaching teams. There are plenty more where these winners came from.

But the fact is that Qingdao is not worthy, in normal August conditions, of being an Olympic level sailing track. The authorities in that authoritarian country have not seen fit to sell the counter-argument and the feeling is made worse that, 700 kilometres out of the sight of Beijing, it is out of the mind of an organisation focused on delivering a huge propaganda return from the main stadia in the capital and giving a huge television audience that is not going to be concerned with sailing, the message it – and the major sponsors – want.

But an error of judgment it is and it is very unlikely that the whole game will be given much of an aspirational boost to the youth of the world because the arena is so poor.

Whether the decision to delay the start of Fastnet Race by a day was the right one remains to be seen. It didn’t seem to make much difference to the competitors, most of whom retired long before they hit the vulnerability zone of the Irish Sea. In Plymouth, none of the early finishers had a good word to say for the delay, but few were injured, no-one was killed, the emergency services had only a light workout, and a new record was set.

The big question mark was over whether the age-old rule that it is the skipper and crew that decides whether to start or continue had been slightly undermined. In a blame culture era it is reasonable to see that organisations will try to protect their backs from meddling politicians and uninformed journalists. But the precedent is now set.

If the Royal Ocean Racing Club is to decide whether conditions are raceable, then the decision of the skipper is, however slightly, suborned. This time the forcast was clear – but never came true as the top report was of 45 knots, not the predicted gusts of 60-plus. Having done it once, will the principle be applied again and if a fleet is sent out into heavy weather and there is more damage or injury does that mean that the vultures (lawyers) will have more of a case?

But the main question is over who shall make the judgment. Individuals on their own behalves or institutions, not just nannying, but in their own defence?  


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