Entrenched and Embattled: America's Cup 34

As a result of Luna Rossa’s boycott and Artemis Racing’s continued absence, ETNZ sailed lonely (but-not-long) laps around the racecourse on both Sunday and Tuesday, kicking off the so-called “Summer of Racing” on a flat, lackluster note.

America's Cup Protest Hearing

America's Cup Protest Hearing© ACEA / PHOTO GILLES MARTIN-RAGET

Storm clouds are metaphorically churning above the ongoing Louis Vuitton Cup as teams entrench their positions and prepare for the first serious drama of the 34th America’s Cup cycle. The protest that Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) and Luna Rossa Challenge have lodged against America’s Cup Regatta Director Iain Murray regarding several of his safety recommendations (which Murray issued following Artemis Racing’s tragic capsize on May 9 that killed double Olympic medalist Andrew “Bart” Simpson) turned publically ugly last Saturday when Luna Rossa’s skipper Max Sirena announced that his team would not race until the International Jury had made their decision on the pending joint protest. As a result of Luna Rossa’s boycott and Artemis Racing’s continued absence, ETNZ sailed lonely (but-not-long) laps around the racecourse on both Sunday and Tuesday, kicking off the so-called “Summer of Racing” on a flat, lackluster note.

“We have protested the introduction of new Class Rules without the unanimous agreement of the competing teams,” said Sirena at his team’s press conference on Saturday. “By racing under these rules, enforced by the Regatta Director with Race Notices 185 and 189, we would somehow silently approve them. This is not the case. Therefore we have no choice but to stay ashore until the International Jury has reached a decision on the matter.”

Many important players in the America’s Cup world flat-out disagree with Sirena’s assessment of his options. “We find it hard to believe that someone wouldn’t want to sail, because we so much want to sail, and we are working so hard to do so,” said Artemis Racing’s boss, Paul Cayard. Not surprisingly, Oracle Team USA shares Cayard’s sentiment. “I think it’s just wrong that they should think that by threatening the event and threatening race officials that they’re going to get their own way,” said Russell Coutts, Oracle’s CEO, who likened the Italian-flagged team as a bunch of fashionably-dressed-but-poorly-behaved children. “Even my 7-year-old boy doesn’t behave like this,” continued Coutts. “I wouldn’t accept this behavior from him.”

For their part, ETNZ has been much more pragmatic and far less emotional about their pending protest and have been collecting some of the easiest points that have ever been earned in LVC (or AC) history. “We’re a commercially funded team,” said Dean Barker, ETNZ’s skipper. “It’s important for us as a team, to our sponsors and followers in New Zealand to get out there and race. We trust that the International Jury will make the correct decision based on the information it’s got. The process is underway. Whether we sail or not isn’t going to influence that.”

ETNZ and Luna Rossa presented the International Jury with over eight hours of evidence on Monday (July 8) at their combined protest hearing. A best-case scenario would see the International Jury delivering their decision by the end of the week (if not sooner), while the game of hypothetical what-ifs gets scary, quickly. For example, if the International Jury were to determine that they do not have the authority to rule on this protest, the Auld Mug could find itself back in the throes of the New York Supreme Court, which has legal authority over the America’s Cup. Should this grim prospect become reality, this protest could potentially derail the entire Cup cycle.

This week’s LVC racing calendar calls for a Luna Rossa to line-up against Artemis Racing on Thursday, but fans can likely expect an absolute non-event, given that Artemis still isn’t sailing their second-generation AC72. [N.B., Current reports are calling for Artemis to be sailing their new boat sometime between the middle of July and the beginning of August.] Couple this hard reality with Luna Rossa’s refusal to “silently approve” the AC72 class rule changes, and the racecourse is likely to (metaphorically) resemble a New England marina in February: virtually empty, with an icy, biting wind. A ruling by the International Jury could still see Luna Rossa follow in ETNZ’s lonely wake on Thursday with their own soliloquy sail, but few Cup experts are staking their last rolls of duct tape on this outcome.

Instead, heavy focus is being placed on Saturday’s scheduled contest between Luna Rossa and ETNZ, provided, of course, that the International Jury is prompt with their decision. If this race takes place, it will mark the first time that two AC72s have sparred with points on the line. While ETNZ’s solo sails weren’t exactly tactically engaging, there’s no doubt that a fully lit-up AC72 commands attention, as evidenced by the crowds that assembled to watch the mighty Kiwi cat fly on her hydrofoils.

While it’s now a poorly kept secret that the AC72 class has proven itself to be too expensive, too powerful and too complex for San Francisco’s blustery summer conditions, it’s also a hopeful, buoyant fact that so many Cup fans (myself included) are still captivated by the technology, the preparation and the level of refined skill on display. ETNZ ticked an impressive 43.26 knots on Tuesday in winds of just 20 knots, demonstrating the kind of straight-line speeds that these mighty cats deliver. Sure, everyone would love to see more teams involved in the event and hear less animosity between the teams (and the event), but ETNZ’s raw performance is solid evidence of what makes the America’s Cup an irreproachable Phoenix: Combine the most money with the best technology and the best sailors, and real magic can happen.

And while the cliché America’s Cup phrase, “Madam, there is no second” has been much touted this week given ETNZ’s solo performances, there’s also no question that real AC magic can only happen when teams opt for great racing, not boycotts and brinksmanship.