Clubs, cliques, and class
September 2, 2007, 10:42 am
Filed under: Tosh

Nearly all sport is centred around clubs – yes, there are public golf courses and tennis courts, yes, running can be very individual – and those clubs offer opportunities for common advancement or separation from the common; social exclusivity is still important to the masses.

But most sports at least agree that the same game will be played to a global set of rules. Sailing is different. It encompasses both sport and recreation, mixes the two, and, because of weak leadership at the top of the bloody-minded beneath them , offers huge scope for anarchism and fragmentation.

Clubs decide which types of yacht will be used, however obscure, and, in the UK at least, top talent has to move away from the club network if it is to thrive at national and international level.

The game is also capable of producing clubs within clubs, with, over the years maxis playing their own game, 50-footers appearing in various guises, and hybrids of the kind which the Farr 40 represents, claiming world significance. They exist within the game, but also operate in a separate, parallel zone.

Currently, the TP52s probably offer the best test of first division professionalism. It would be better if they abandoned any distinction between full professional and owner-driver teams and it would be wonderful if they could broaden their use from just their own circuit to being the boat of choice for a revival of the Admiral’s Cup. But that might mean putting their boats up for charter and privately-owned kit is not easily put at the call of another event organiser. Still, it would mean a big boost in exposure for the dreaded sponsors.

A much bigger fleet exists of Farr 40s, but, if they were to be made available for other events than their own, they would have to resolve a class rule which demands owner drivers to allow professional crews to use them as well.

The present mixture of pros and so-called amateurs in the Farr 40s has, if nothing else, worked. To interfere in such a way that the class became destabilised would not be a good idea, but there are some clever enough minds to tackle a discussion which could lead to an area of international competition which has withered being given new life and which would be welcomed back warmly. Perhaps two Farr 40s and a TP52 would make a good three-boat team.

The recent Farr 40 world championship in Copenhagen saw Italy’s defending champion Vincenzo Onorato steer his Mascalzone Latino to an emphatic, back-to-back victory over second-placed Ernesto Bertarelli in Alinghi with another former champion, Jim Richardson, third in Barking Mad.

Not surprisingly, Onorato, a typically heart-on-sleeve passionate Italian, said it had been something of a dream to beat the more Swiss, grey and cold Italian, Bertarelli, a dream he would like to repeat at the America’s Cup.

Bertarelli and his crew duly congratulated the Rascals dockside but, when it came to the prize-giving, they gave it the cold shoulder, with no senior member of the team there to pick up the trophy for second. That is not good. If there is no time in sport for grace and courtesy, then sport is the loser. It is a matter of manners and the snub was not just to the winners and the organisers but to all their fellow-competitors.


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?  

Battle lines are drawn
July 25, 2007, 8:56 pm
Filed under: America's Cup, Tosh, Uncategorized

So, the battle lines are drawn. Whatever happens, there will be blood on the carpet as Larry Ellison, boss of the California-based Oracle software house, says he cannot accept the terms of the next America’s Cup as drawn up by the pharmceuticals billionaire from Switzerland, Ernesto Bertarelli.

This is no longer a contest on the water, it is only perpherally about yachting. It is a battle of wills and Ellison has taken the big risk of throwing down, very publicly, a legal gauntlet. He didn’t even do that very well, as the technicalities of serving the petition in the New York Supreme Court ran into problems. But the Golden Gate Yacht Club, which does his bidding, will get it right and then the Société Nautique de Geneve will have 30 days to respond.

The first hurdle that Ellison’s lawyers will have to clear is that the deal with the challenger of record, the recently-formed Club Nautico Espanol de Vela, is invalid, though the court could find this is ok and still rule that the GGYC challenge in 90×90 catamarans should go ahead.

As Team New Zealand has joined CNEV, South Africa’s Shosholoza and the UK’s Origin in challenging under the protocol which Ellison finds so objectionable, the divide and rule principle seems to be working.

At the shambolic press conference organised to announce that the €105m bid from Valencia (40% Madrid, 40% region, 20% city) was successful, so the rallying calls of support for the CNEV and Spain’s national governing body which spawned it, the Desafio Espanol, were thumped onto the table by regional president Francesco Camps, Valencia mayor Rita Barberá, and national government minister of public administration Elena Salgado. One curious precursor was a stone-faced Alinghi skipper Brad Butterworth asking the Luna Rossa lawyer Luis Saenz to leave. “We are on different sides,” he said. 

 America’s Cup Management ceo Michel Bonnefous was on hand to say he hoped to organise the best America’s Cup ever and remind Salgado, when she said that only a preliminary agreement had been signed, that this was a binding agreement. As the Madrid parliament is in summer recess it cannot be formalised until September.

Ernesto Bertarelli started slowly, saying that there would be two regattas next year, the first, in the spring, in Valencia and the second, in the autumn, to be announced, but in Europe. AC 33 trials would begin in April 2009, the class rule for the new 90-footer would be published by October 31 this year and teams, although they could build two hulls, could only sail one at a time. No two-boat testing, no side-by-side testing with other syndicates except when taking part in an ACM-organised regatta.

The same rules would applly to Alinghi – though how far they are already ahead with design work was not mentioned – and if the defender was eliminated from the challenger trials it would no longer be able to test against others. Alinghi would, in any case, not be able to contest the challnger finals. Big deal.

He said that an independent arbitration panel would be appointed as would an independent jury. Who will make the appointments –  why ACM of course, which is wholly owned by Bertarelli.

He then started laying into Ellison. “It seems like having failed to win on the water, twice, he is trying to win it in court,” was the gist of what he said. This was a “great disappointment” and the bid to race exclusively, without other challengers being involved, “is unacceptable.” The answer was, he said, to refer the matter to the arbitration panel, not the New York court. “We have no interest in racing in a 90-foot multihull,” he said, adding that Ellison’s move was creating huge insecurity, not least for those challenger syndicates trying to raise sponsorship finance. And it was damaging ‘the America’s Cup brand’.

Mayor Barberá said she would support the Desafio and protect the rights of the Desafio as challenger of record. She was happy to hear that Ellison was saying he liked Valencia and invited Ellison “to give up all this litigation and we will welcome him with open arms.” Salgado, a socialist party government minister, gritted her teeth and chimed in with support for the opposition People’s Party mayor.

Behind the scenes the councils of war are in daily session. If Ellison thinks he can head a tight union of dissent he has to be deluding himself. Every syndicate will put self-interest first and do what they think is best for themselves. If Ellison can squeeze out some benefit then so be it. But they would expect him to be equally tough if he were to win the cup.

Ellison had, the previous day, taken the trouble to fly into Valencia to present his latest prize, the former Alinghi skipper Russell Coutts, as the chief executive office and skipper to replace Chris Dickson. He held centre stage in the cinema/theatre for most of a hastily-organised press conference and engineered the first crack at occupying the moral high ground by calling for a committee of challengers to agree mutually a design rule for the next cup, to call for the race officials,umpires and jury to be completely independent, and that any legitimate yacht club should have thr right to enter a team in the challenger series. “Right now, the Alinghi protocol gives Alinghi sole discretion to throw out any challenger they don’t like for any reason. This is unfair and unacceptable,” he said.

Why should he say this? Because, and it dependes on which version you believe, either Ellison called Bertarelli or Bertarelli called Ellison but the outcome was that Bertarelli warned Ellison that a Golden Gate Yacht Club Challenge would not be accepted. Asked the same question at the press conference the following day, Bertarelli said: “No comment.”

Whether Bertarelli would defend a catamaran challenge, and whether that would be in Valencia, is unkown. But, if Ellison goes down the New York Supreme Court route, only one will be left standing. Great soap opera script material. Not great sport.   

Ellison the good guy?
July 21, 2007, 12:48 pm
Filed under: America's Cup, Diary, Tosh

If it wasn’t serious it would be funny. The Golden Gate Yacht Club versus the Société Nautique de Géneve? That is what is on the documents presented to the New York Supreme Court, but this is a battle of two billionaires, both at times characterised as billionaire brats, with the unlikely side-effect of the San Francisco-based Larry Ellison, boss of the Oracle America’s Cup challenge, grabbing the white stetson of the good guy and planting the black hat of the villain firmly on the head of Switzerland’s Ernesto Bertarelli, boss of the Alinghi syndicate which has just successfully defended the cup in Valencia.

As the Spanish city prepares to announce that it will host America’s Cup 33 in July of 2009, its mayor, the recently -re-elected, irrepressible, baritone-voiced Rita Barbera, must be hoping that there is a penalty clause written into a contract worth over €100m if Alinghi and its unloved executive arm, America’s Cup Management, fails to deliver.

 There was near-universal condemnation of the terms of the protocol for the next event when it was announced a couple of days after Alinghi beat Team New Zealand 5-2 in early July of 2007. The Spanish press ripped into its national federation for being not just raped but dropping its own trousers and obligingly standing with its legs apart in agreeing to the terms which Alinghi and ACM had demanded.

Most of the rest of the challengers were wringing their hands – though it is clear that the South Africans are equally willing to do Alinghi’s bidding, the Chinese have other fish to fry, and the British Origin team is standing back in case a mediator is needed.

So a meeting  was held in Valencia which included some of the big hitters like Patrizio Bertelli of Prada/Luna Rossa, Grant Dalton and Jim Farmer of TNZ, Dawn Riley of Areva, Alessandra Pandarese representing Vincenzo Onorato’s Mascalzone Latino, Tom Ehman for Ellison and the Germans. But, instead of just saying ‘what can we do’, a stiff letter drafted by Bertelli’s Spanish lawyer Luis Sainz was tweaked, approved and sent to both the Club Nautico Espanol de Vela, Berterelli’s collaborators, and the SNG.

What Ehman did not tell the meeting was that GGYC was intending to lodge a second challenge, under the terms of the third Deed of Gift which govern the running of the event. This is the 1887 version and is in the jurisdiction of the New York Supreme Court, having been lodged there by the New York Yacht Club.

A delegation duly flew to Geneva, a local legal processor accompanied them to the SNG clubhouse and handed the document to the secretary general (photographing the procedure) and went back to Valencia. The challenge was under the strict trerms of the 1887 Deed, specifying a yacht with a 90-foot load waterline length, a 90-foot beam (almost certainly a catamaran and, yes, design work is well underway) and in 10 months.

 There was no word from Alinghi, ACM or the SNG until the SNG announced it had also accpted a challenge from the Royal Cape Yacht Club on behalf of Shosholoza and under the terms of its latest protocol.

That was enough for Ellison, who then immediately instructed the law firm of Latham & Watkins to make its move. Not the San Diego office, which had acted in 1987 and ’88 on behalf of the San Diego Yacht Club in its fight against Michael Fay ahead of the big boat versus catamaran fiasco. This was the New York office operating on its own ground.

The acceptance of the South Africa challenge was manna from heaven for GGYC as it was clear evidence of a deliberate freezing out of Ellison and a hint that, even if the pressure on the CNEV to stand down was succesful, ACM had a second poodle on a lead. Whether that pressure has had any effect may be seen after a meeting on Thursday 26 July of the board of CNEV’s directors. Apparently the King of Spain is less than impressed, other Spanish yacht clubs are taking every opportunity to stick it to a CNEV that has yet to do anything other than try to organise an Optimist regatta in Santander, and is generally perceived to have been less macho than is acceptable to a nation that worships bullfighters.

Estimates are that it could take three to four months to extract a decision from the finest legal minds that New York has to offer (say October or November) and if it went GGYC’s way that would imply a 2008 cup in August/September with the first Valencia Formula 1 grand prix slated for October next year. It would also call into question the ability of the Swiss to put together the best boat, which would have to be designed, built and equipped only with materials available in Switzerland. Perhaps Andy Steiner could build the mast, and Décision could build the hulls, but winches, sailcloth and electronics would be more difficult.

SNG has 30 days to respond, that is by 19 August, and needs to juggle its relationship with Valencia with its feeling about how strong is its own position and how stubbornly it wants to keep total control. Ellison clearly wants to create enough leverage to shoehorn Bertarelli, however reluctantly, into negotiations. He would then be the white knight who wants to see an event board made up of two directors appointed by the challengers, two by the defender and those four able to appoints a fifth as chairman. He wants the appointment of people like jury members, event director and race officers to remain independent. And he will want to see the whole of the challenger programme returned to the challengers without Alinghi always crashing their party.

Meanwhile, the transfer season is still underway, even though the latest developments have had people keeping the caps on their pens until they see how things are going to run. Not least in the Oracle camp, where Russell Coutts is nearly in place, and in the Spanish camp, where Paul Cayard is an unhappy observer of what is happening and his long-time buddy Francesco de Angelis, who has parted company with Prada, does not like the way the CNEV has acted. 

All power corrupts
July 4, 2007, 11:16 am
Filed under: America's Cup, Tosh

At last it’s over and so it has begun. The America’s Cup always was like no other sports event but now it is to be so different as to be weird. In no other sport would even a governing body try to control the activities of the clubs that take part, never mind one individual control the affairs of all the competitors and charge them for making him money. But that is what is happening in the America’s Cup as America’s Cup Management, which is wholly owned by defence syndicate backer Ernesto Bertarelli, issues not only a new protocol for America’s Cup 33 but a participation agreement for the challenger syndicates that will handcuff them completely. What may be good is that the experiment with taking regattas to host ports around Europe was such a success that it will be expanded – though how much compulsion there will be or whether they will count for a seeding system is yet to be unveiled. What is for sure is that such a level of dictatorship has to be either very self-disciplined or be transparently vulnerable to outside influence.