HK marooned as America's Cup begins

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 October, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 October, 1999, 12:00am

Eleven boats from seven countries will face the starter's gun when the America's Cup challenger series gets under way today in Auckland, New Zealand.

But it is a case of what might have been for the Aberdeen Boat Club-backed Hong Kong challenge. It's entry, the Spirit of Hong Kong, will not be part of the Louis Vuitton Cup, which will decide which challenger will take on Team New Zealand for yachting's most prestigious prize next February.

Any last vestige of doubt that a Hong Kong challenge would materialise - not to compete but simply to salvage a multi-million dollar deposit fee - is once and for all buried with the start of the 55-race, round-robin series today.

In fact, the last date for any challenger to stake a serious claim was in August this year when the final entry deadline expired.

'I think Hong Kong will now have to forfeit the deposit. Even if you don't race, you will have to turn up to reclaim the deposit,' said Bruno Trouble, media spokesman for Louis Vuitton.

'Hong Kong's image is not good here. They have suffered quite a bit from all the controversy. But this is part of the sport and there are always a number of teams who fail to turn up,' added Trouble.

The huge sums needed to mount a serious bid put paid to Hong Kong's chances, which ended in bankruptcy, court writs and a test boat being repossessed in Auckland.

According to Trouble, the budget of the teams lies anywhere between US$8 million to US$70 million this time around.

'Your talking of huge sums of money. The most expensive challenge is coming from the New York Yacht Club, which is estimated at around US$70 million.' The man most associated with the America's Cup, veteran Dennis Conner, is at the head of a US$15 million challenge.

'Compared to some of the other teams, Conner is poor and short of money. But his Stars and Stripes will be competitive . . . he is always competitive. You cannot think of an America's Cup without him,' said Trouble.

Conner, who became the first American skipper to lose the Auld Mug - back in 1983 - is taking part in his eighth America's Cup. Last time in San Diego, in 1995, Team Dennis Conner's Young America failed to stop Team New Zealand's Black Magic from taking the Cup home.

Apart from Conner, there are four other syndicates from the United States (including one from Hawaii) and boats from Switzerland, Spain, Italy, France, Australia and Japan.