Rave from the Viaduct
February 2, 2009, 1:05 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Having resisted the temptation to indulge in the vanity of parading my own opinions for 18 months, I thought that one of perhaps two or three missives may be allowed for 2009.
The Viaduct Basin in Auckland is buzzing again as 10 America’s Cup teams, some very real, some still winging it, have gathered for what is billed as a fornight of fun under the banner of the Louis Vuitton Pacific Series.
The format for the match racing is far too difficult to reduce to simple English, especially as a lot of flexibility has been built in to accommodate any unhelpful weather.
What is for sure is that the hosts, Emirates Team New Zealand, can race against all the others but has an automatic place in the finals. Such provision has caused furious debate in other circles.
Drinking in the same bar are the crews of the America’s Cup holder, Switzerland’s Alinghi, and their BMW Oracle rivals. The latest legal depositions over the structure of the next America’s Cup will be made during the Kiwi love-in, on the 10 February. Both sides can have up to 30 minutes to make their cases, again, to a New York Court of Appeals panel of seven judges which includes Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick, who was in charge of the challenge brought by (now Sir) Michael Fay against the San Diego Yacht Club. Even he wonders, these days, if he would do the same again.
As Senator George Mitchell is sent by new President Barack Obama to wade once more into a Middle East mire which extends well beyond just Irael and putative Palestine, questions have been asked in Auckland about the possibility of last-minute talks to avert tipping over the edge.
The LVPS has its finale on 14 February but any romantic notions of hearts and flowers are brushed aside by Alinghi skipper Brad Butterworth. His friend and opposite number Russell Coutts says he still wants to do everything to bring about a return to a multi-challenge America’s Cup in which the challengers have a fair crack of the whip.
I know how I interpret the English in the Deed of Gift but I know also that the Court of Appeals is not there to make recommendations on how to run a better, nor more just, nor more sensible America’s Cup. The only opinion it is constituted to promulgate is legal opinion.
What I can hope is that BMW Oracle, in the event of winning its argument and being made Challenger of Record and being given the go-ahead for a one-on-one Deed of Gift match, will already have a prepared statement to be read on the steps of the court saying that it is still prepared to go into talks, as Challenger of Record, with Alinghi to establish an immediate return to a multi-challenger format which has not been perfect but has served reasonably well for the second half of the 20th century.
If Alinghi feels it needs to stick to its one boat per team principle, especially at a time when the world’s finances are in chaos, then it could always return to the system which ran well up until 1995 and invite others to race in defender trials.
And I cannot finish without saying that I feel the International Sailing Federation could have chosen Francis Joyon as its sailor of the year, but, to borrow a phrase from Abba Eban about the troubled Middle East, ISAF rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Michel Desjoyeaux has done a fantastic job in the Vendee Globe solo round the world race, and Sam Davies, perhaps among all the finishers, deserves huge applause.


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.   

G’day sport?
July 10, 2007, 1:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Something over 30 years ago there was excited confidence that sailing was about to break into the big time of sports spectator consciousness as television would project it to a world just waiting to be turned on. And 0ver 30 years later, sailing is still struggling to conquer that craggy mountain.

There were some good moments from the latest America’s Cup, though the quality of the shots, especially onboard, was no better than in 1987, the onboard sound was, if anything, worse, and any audience figures you read should be taken with heaps of salty scepticism.  All sports television audience statistics are now highly skewed if they include China’s Channel 5, which claims a reach of 300m. Even in China, they can switch to other channels, so the potential audience and the actual audience are world apart.

Nevertheless, it was television that provided the spur to what is called the ‘medal race’ at Olympic regattas, where the top 10 take part for double points in the last race. That was because, formerly, a competitor or team could win with a race to spare, the tv guys would turn up for what was meant to be the climax, and the gold medal winner was sitting ashore already celebrating. So what?

Well, sport is no longer something which society finds valuable as a release from the pressures of everyday life. Sport is no longer sport, and sportsmanship is a concept so unrealistic and uncool as to be laughed at by those who excuse all of mankind’s worst characteristics as ‘the way of the world’.

Sport is a commercial platform, an exercise in branding and logo recognition, an opportunity to lush up guests in a corporate hospitality programme, and that means that the number of seconds some marketing director can count of his company’s exposure on television is more important than the game itself.

In the old days, sports photographers produced, apart from their war zone colleagues, some of the most dramatic pictures to be printed. Great picture, they would say to each other. Now, many publications are ready to save money by taking the free offerings from event organisers, competitors and their sponsors and public relations companies. Freelances just cannot make it pay. And the mutterings now as a picture is selected? Great branding, great branding. The photographers would not be allowed to send out pictures without the branding being the focal point.

And, just in case you might not be paying enough attention to the commerical message, then what used to be static advertising on perimeter billboards around a football or rugby pitch, have been turned into moving messages designed to do what? – drag your eye away from the game you wish to watch to the commerical message of some grubby little salesman.

 The people who pour their cash into sport as an advertising platform are not nice guys. That would come under the old heading of patronage. They want their pound of flesh and expect sports organisers to run around like headless chickens to ensure that there is ‘sponsor fulfilment’.

So it was that, on a day when it had been blowing 40 knots across the Bay of Cascais, and evening was approaching, that the first medal race, in the Star, a two-man keelboat designed nearly 100 years ago and noted for its fragile masts, was sent out in desperation 45 minutes before the 20.00 medal ceremony because the wind had dropped to 28 knots. It was, we were told, to provide ‘live’ television coverage and the additional expenditure of €3,600 for a helicopter was approved. When asked where this ‘live’ television was to be broadcast there were blank looks from senior officials before the admission that not a single television station in the world was taking the live feed. There were just a few screens around the marina in Cascais with 20 or so people in front of each.

When will these guys learn? The law that rules the world is written by Mr Sod and to challenge that is nearly suicidal. Sure enough, the hapless 10 were in all sorts of difficulties trying to protect their sails, rigs and good selves as the pump was turned back on, the wind speed increased and they all had to scurry home to safety.

Just another day at the office
July 9, 2007, 10:13 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

A valuable day ashore allowed the new female force in Britain’s Olympic sailing, the trio of Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb with new team member Pippa Wilson, to savour their places at the head of the Yngling fleet at the world championships of sailing in Cascais yesterday.

The Sarahs have an 11-point cushion over Shirley Robertson, with whom they won gold at Athens in 2004, but who now has Annie Lush and Lucy Macgregor to try and make it a trio of golds next year.  

After three firsts and a second, Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes posted a fourth, a first and a fourth in the 49ers. That keeps them on top and well ahead of the Athens bronze medallists, Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks.

A strong British squad, whose manager Stephen Park has set only a three-medal haul as a target but wants to see as many of the 11 classes as possible qualify for China next year, saw the 470 women Christina Bassadone and Saskia Clark sandwich two wins with a 13th and a ninth as Leigh McMillan and Will Howden lie fifth in the Tornado catamaran.

An eighth and a first not only qualified Britain’s Star class entry for Korea but kept Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson in third place going into Tuesday’s medal race for the top 10. Given this is only their second major regatta together – the first was in Miami – a podium finish would augur well for the new partnership.

And even with many fraces to go, Bryony Shaw has qualified Britain for the RS-X windsurfer slot at next yedar’s Games. 

The real deal
July 7, 2007, 4:22 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

After an amazing journey of 1,000kms west from Valencia via Madrid and an overnight in the magnificent 14th century castle parador hotel in Caceres there is a complete change of mood in Cascais, Portugal at the ISAF world championships of sailing. All 11 Olympic classes are holding their world championships concurrently over 10 days in a venue which not only bid to stage the recently-completed America’s Cup but which is still spitting tacks about the way in which it feels it was treated when the nod went to Valencia.

There are 1,390 competitors from 76 countries here, so, if you really want to know where your country stands in the pecking order of international sailing then this is it. Doubtless there is still a lot of commerical wheeling and dealing in the background and there will be all sorts of squabbles over who has the right to broadcast what and to whom. Sailing still thinks it has major appeal even on a weekend when the Wimbledon titles are being settled and the Formula 1 circus moves to Silverstone. More evangelism, please. 

 Still, where there is a buck to be made opinions are often sold cheaply, but the sailing retains its integrity and the cream always rises to the top. With Robert Scheidt more than challenging the legend-in-his-own-lifetime Torben Grael for the Brazilian slot in the Star class there may also be some validity to the argument that having what should be a breezy venue to decide 75 per cent.of the national qualification places for a Qingdao where the breeze could not often blow the skin off a rice pudding.

There was considerable apprehension when the first of these jamborees was staged near Cadiz and lots of financial support had to be found. Now the national delegations are lobbying ISAF for the right to stage the 2011 event, including one led by Alinghi coach and former America’s Cup skipper Peter Gilmour. But that would be Perth, up the river, not Fremantle, where the breeze and waves would be a major test for the dinghy bretheren.

One problem, apart from the unreliable communications structure and the erratic results service, is that the racing can continue until 21.00 which, for an event that wants to say it wishes to communicate with the world in a big way, is far better for the Americas or even the breakfast shows in the far East and Australasia.

Still it is a breath of fresh air after the fetid atmosphere in Valencia which became even worse when the protocol for the next event was unveiled. Control of the competitors and supposedly independent bodies like the race committee, jury and race officer were bad enough. The emasculation of challenger independence was also taken a painful stage further and the any semblance of fair competition brutally destroyed.

At the same time how must the poor German team feel about having recently applied for a sail number for a new boat without being told that a new design was round the corner? Well, perhaps not too bad as much of the qualification racing will be in the old version five boats we saw this time. Nevertheless, such sneaky secretiveness, while tank testing the new design themselves, hardly qualifies Alinghi for a sportsmanship award; and it means the challengers have to run two campaigns at once, one in the old boat while working up a second in the new design.

One man who is happy – and is sailing a Star for his home country, Argentina, in Cascais – is ABN Amro and BMW Oracle designer Juan Kouyoumdjian. He expects the new boat to be about 15 or 16 tonnes, as opposed to the 24 of the shorter 80-footer, knew that the tank testing in Canada was underway, and can look forward to being in demand again. So, at least the design race element of the America’s Cup continues and naturally he is happy about that. As for the rest, it is time someone found a way of reining in what the Italians are describing as the “military dictatorship” of Alinhgi and its wholly-owned subsidiary, America’s Cup Management. But don’t look to the world governing body. It cannot control its own sport from marauders.