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A game for billionaires

by Mark Jardine 23 Mar 16:00 GMT
Aristotle Amadopolis and Monty Burns million-dollar wager © The Simpsons

One of my favourite Simpsons episodes, from 1992, is where Homer creates a 'Wonder Bat' from a fallen tree branch, leading to a revival of the Springfield nuclear plant softball team's team fortunes. Plant owner Monty Burns has a million-dollar wager with Aristotle Amadopolis, owner of the Shelbyville nuclear plant, as to which of their teams will win the championship.

The story features several baseball legends as Mr Burns loads his team with ringers to try and win the game. Being the Simpsons, things don't exactly go to plan and Homer ends up being the final hitter after a bizarre sequence of unrelated mishaps prevent eight of the all-stars from playing...

Monty Burns is happy to go to any lengths to win his wager, and we've seen many tricks pulled in the battle to win the America's Cup. Spying, courtrooms, deceit, gamesmanship and cheating have all featured in years gone by. Winning the Auld Mug becomes an obsession for the uber-rich yachting fanatics.

We've recently enjoyed watching the AC75s racing in Auckland, New Zealand, but while the trophy is being hoisted aloft by the winning team in front of the fans, the wrangling is already well under way as to how and when the next America's Cup will be contested. The Deed of Gift, which defines the rules for the match, was originally written in 1851. The crux of the document is to allow a Club to challenge the holder to a race, and then mutually agree the terms under which the racing is held.

The 36th America's Cup was remarkably free of shenanigans, which on the whole kept the event confined to the sports sections of the mainstream publications. This reflects the current tranche of team supporters who tend to avoid the limelight. They are Matteo de Nora, the Team Principal of Emirates Team New Zealand, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Founder and Chairman of INEOS who sponsor the British team, Patrizio Bertelli the CEO of Prada, which backs the Italian team, and the trio of Hap Fauth, Doug DeVos & Roger Penske who fund NYYC American Magic.

Larry Ellison of ORACLE and Ernesto Bertarelli of Alinghi are rumoured to be considering reigniting their Cup campaigns, but imagine if the likes of Elon Musk decided to get involved? I can't imagine anything about a Tesla or SpaceX branded campaign would be understated or free from controversy...

So far, all we know for certain is that INEOS TEAM UK is the Challenger of Record for the 37th America's Cup and that the AC75 will remain the class used. This puts the British challenger in a strong position, working with the holders to decide on the rules and venue. There are rumours that a Deed of Gift match, only involving the Brits and the Kiwis, will be held from Cowes in 2022.

This could merely be a tactic to persuade the New Zealand government to back the holders and keep the event in Auckland, but the idea has already met with ire from the New York Yacht Club Commodore Christopher J. Culver, who wrote: "...a Deed of Gift match off the Isle of Wight . . . would be a huge step in the wrong direction. The two previous Deed of Gift matches, in 1988 and 2010, were distinct low points in the history of the America's Cup. Regardless of the conditions, the New York Yacht Club will not support a Deed of Gift match or an America's Cup competition that, due to the schedule and rules for competition, is effectively open to only the Defender and Challenger of Record."

I recently re-watched the 1988 and 2010 Deed of Gift matches and Commodore Culver is right - the events were dire. Yes, the technology was cutting-edge at the time, with Michael Fay's giant monohull taking on the American catamaran, and the giant solid-winged trimaran of ORACLE Team USA versus the soft-sailed catamaran of Alinghi, but the races were mismatches and positively pedestrian compared to today's yachts.

Both American Magic and Luna Rossa are keen to be involved in the next America's Cup and it would be a great shame to have them excluded. The America's Cup need to build momentum if it is to be taken seriously outside of the world of sailing and be regarded as a great sporting event alongside the likes of the football (soccer) World Cup, Olympics or Superbowl.

A Deed of Gift match carries the risk of team backers not invited to the party simply deciding to pull out of the sport altogether, and who can blame them if they are snubbed in this manner? Sailing needs the decision-makers to be inclusive. The America's Cup isn't to everyone's taste, and the high-speed foiling AC75s - and the 50ft foiling catamarans which preceded them - divide opinion, but the event drives forward innovation in sailing and employs many in the marine industry both directly and indirectly. The more teams the better in my opinion. Better for the spectacle, better for the industry and ultimately better for sailing itself.

The third paragraph of the Deed of Gift states, "This Cup is donated upon the condition that it shall be preserved as a perpetual challenge Cup for friendly competition between foreign countries." This is an ideal which is at times pushed to the very limit, but we certainly saw mutual respect between the Kiwis and Italians in Auckland. Both teams sailed at the top of their game, recognising the skill of the opposition. Let us hope that as many nations as possible can compete in the next America's Cup Challenger Series, showing sailing in as good a light as possible on the world stage.

Sail-World's Australian Editor John Curnow recently unearthed the story of Australia's unsuccessful America's Cup defence in 1987, where Iain Murray wanted to lengthen Kookaburra II and use her to defend the Cup against Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes 87. The all-time great had identified that waterline length was key, but events conspired against him as described in John's great article Sliding Doors.

Homer Simpson had his Wonder Bat, and at the end of the day the focus of all the potential challenging teams is to design and build the fastest yacht. After all, that is what wins the America's Cup.

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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