Poisoned chalice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am

It is only 8am but the jacket I'm wearing is already causing problems.

'Don't wear that around here, you could get killed,' says a young woman juggling a pair of walkie-talkies. In this case, 'that' is not something with gang colours or part of a military uniform and 'here' is not South Central Los Angeles or Afghanistan's Helmand province.

Our location is the far more genteel surroundings of an Auckland yacht club and the jacket in question is a sailing anorak with the curiously comic name 'Alinghi' stitched across its back, although the woman with the communication devices is not laughing.

'The guys from the Alinghi boat had death threats after what they did,' she says. 'Walking around New Zealand with that jacket on is like having a target on your back.'

Welcome to the world of America's Cup yacht racing and the second leg of the Louis Vuitton Trophy, a competition that only exists because of what the 'guys from the Alinghi boat' did in 2003, and the antics that followed, featuring Ernesto Bertarelli and Larry Ellison, two billionaires with egos like supernovas that glitter within the capacious galaxies of their enormous bank balances.

What Bertarelli, a Swiss pharmaceutical billionaire, and Ellison, a Californian electronics baron, have done to the America's Cup, the world's oldest sporting trophy, has made grown men weep and supported battalions of lawyers, and they almost put many of the world's top-class professional sailors out of work.

The latter was only avoided because last year, Louis Vuitton's chief executive, Yves Carcelle, along with the World Sailing Team Association (WSTA - a group of eight America's Cup syndicates), created the Louis Vuitton Trophy, a series of regattas for those teams displaced from the America's Cup. All the teams sail in similar America's Cup-class yachts.

The Louis Vuitton Trophy comes to Hong Kong in January for the final leg of its first series, which has been hailed as a success by the sailing community, although Carcelle has no illusions about the kind of world his competition inhabits.

'The America's Cup is one of the world's oldest and most prestigious sporting events and one of its most crazy,' he says. 'People don't really understand it but they have a feeling there is something special behind it that attracts a lot of crazy men with a lot of money and ego. But, on the water, it is probably one the most amazing inventions of sport.'

Carcelle says this on the deck of a motor launch as we watch Team New Zealand win March's Auckland leg of the Louis Vuitton Trophy, defeating Italy's Mascalzone Latino 2-0.

Carcelle remembers the days when to chant the name Alinghi in a New Zealand bar was an invitation to a punch-up. So does Brad Butterworth - he was part of the Alinghi team that received death threats.

'The America's Cup is the most surreal sporting event in the world,' says Switzerland-based Butterworth, who was accorded the status of turncoat by many of his fellow countrymen when he jumped ship from Team New Zealand, the America's Cup winner in 2000, to sail for Bertarelli on Alinghi in 2003.

In that year, Alinghi, sailing on behalf of the Societe Nautique de Geneve (SNG), took the cup from Team New Zealand. As recently as last year, the New Zealand press was reporting that Butterworth had to be protected by security personnel when he returned to Auckland.

'I don't know of any other event that has the same level of intrigue, on and off the water,' Butterworth says. 'And it was certainly strange for me, that I needed to have a bodyguard in my own hometown.'

Butterworth is describing this experience in the dining room of the Alinghi crew headquarters, on the dock in Valencia, Spain. How he came to be here, inside, kowtowing to Bertarelli (who walks through the room during the interview) instead of out on the water on a February day perfect for sailing, is an object lesson in how money, power and ego can ruin something that, on the surface at least, is supposed to be beautiful and pure.

The silver ewer that is the America's Cup began life as an off-the-shelf trophy in the window of Gerrard & Co, a London gold and silversmith. It was purchased for GBP100 in 1848 by Henry Paget, an English aristocrat, who donated it to the Royal Yacht Squadron in 1851, to be used as a trophy for the annual regatta around the Isle of Wight.

In August of that year, in front of a bemused Queen Victoria, the cup was impertinently snatched from British hands by a boat belonging to the New York Yacht Club (NYYC) and captained by its commodore, John Cox Stevens, who finished eight minutes ahead of his closest rival, a British yacht called Apocryphally.

Thus began the longest winning streak in the history of sport. The cup remained in the possession of the NYYC from 1857, when the syndicate that had won the trophy in 1851 donated it to the club, until 1983, when the NYYC boat Stars and Stripes was defeated off San Diego by the Royal Perth Yacht Club, sailing a boat called Australia II captained by John Bertrand.

'There was a recent poll in Australia,' says Bertrand, at one of cocktail parties that decorate the sidelines of the Louis Vuitton Trophy's Auckland leg. 'People were asked to name the most significant events of the past 100 years. The first was the moon landings, No2 was the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the third was our victory in the America's Cup. For the majority of Australians, that is the most important event of the past century.'

That's the kind of passion that the America's Cup has always been able to inspire and, because of its prestige, it has attracted the wealthiest and most driven men on Earth.

One of the most famous is Sir Thomas Lipton, founder of the Lipton tea company. He squandered millions of pounds on five unsuccessful challenges for the cup between 1899 and 1930, although his quixotic pursuit made him and his tea a household name in the United States.

The winner of the trophy has great power over when, where and with whom their defence will take place. The final decision is governed by the cup's 'deed of gift', a labyrinthine legal document that sets the ground rules for the contest and gave the US an insurmountable advantage until the middle of last century.

'At the beginning, the cup was quite autocratic,' says Carcelle, an amateur historian when it comes to the contest's chequered history. 'Americans were managing it for 133 years and at first you had to cross the Atlantic and compete in the same boat, which was an enormous burden.'

This rule, which specified that a challenger must arrive at the race 'on its own keel', was abolished after the second world war but, until then, it gave the US the upper hand in every race.

In order to give the contest a more level playing field, a key innovation was introduced in 1970; the 'challenger of record' was allowed to organise a challenge series, in which yacht clubs would compete against each other for the right to take on the holder of the America's Cup. After a rocky 13 years, this series became the norm when it was restructured and turned into the Louis Vuitton Cup.

'In 1983, due to a variety of circumstances, we began to give our name to the competition,' says Carcelle. 'There was no permanent organisation, just this crazy deed of gift and the competition's history. And so, in a funny way, we have been the memory, the patron, the father and the guardian of the cup.'

Carcelle and Louis Vuitton played this role for 25 years, until Bertarelli, who has a fortune somewhere around the US$10-billion mark, became too much for them to handle. As Butterworth puts it, 'You sure don't get that much money and become that powerful without having a strong ego.'

Bertarelli had become a pariah in New Zealand after, sailing under the Swiss SNG flag, he won the America's Cup for the first time in 2003. As well as employing Butterworth, Bertarelli had used his wealth to steal away Russell Coutts, to be Alinghi's skipper. Coutts had been the captain of Emirates Team New Zealand, which won the America's Cup in 1995 and 2000. Its defeat in 2003 devastated New Zealand and turned Coutts and Butterworth into the country's 'most hated men', but Bertarelli was not ready to stop offending people quite yet.

Switzerland being a landlocked country, Bertarelli put his team's hosting rights for the 2007 cup out to competitive tender and, rather than basing the contest at the port that had the best facilities and racing conditions, he chose Valencia, reportedly the highest bidder on a slate of eight cities.

To prepare for the 2007 cup, Louis Vuitton and the WSTA hosted a challenger series in Valencia that featured 11 teams, including, for the first time, a yacht club from mainland China.

The Qingdao International Yacht Club built a base in Valencia, which still stands, and sent out a boat called Team China. It scored a surprise victory over Ellison's Oracle team before being eliminated in the second round with three points, the lowest in the competition.

The challenger series was a triumph for Team New Zealand and, sensing the possibility of sweet revenge, it looked forward to a contest with the hated Alinghi. A contest it got, but lost, as Alinghi took the 32nd America's Cup 5-2.

Days after Alinghi's victory, the SNG club received notice that Club Nautico Espanol de Vela (CNEV) intended to be the challenger of record for the 33rd America's Cup.

The Spanish club had been created specifically for the purpose of making the challenge. It was a move designed to ensure that Valencia, which had spent a fortune on creating a race centre with 11 team bases, would continue to host the cup. Instead, the move caused widespread consternation and Louis Vuitton terminated its challenger competition and all sponsorship activities associated with the America's Cup.

'We were not happy with the cup in Valencia in 2007 because the whole thing was money driving the game,' Carcelle says. 'It was turned into a bidding war between the cities instead of choosing the best location. It was not the sport driving or the tradition driving, but the money driving the decisions that were being made.'

Meanwhile, Ellison took Alinghi to court in New York, which, given the geographical origins of the deed of gift, is where all legal disputes surrounding the cup must be settled. Alinghi had issued a protocol (set of rules) for the 33rd America's Cup, which was condemned by eight other international yacht clubs and described in one legal brief as 'the worst in the history of the competition'.

In December last year, the New York courts decided CNEV was not a legal challenger. The Golden Gate Yacht Club, based in San Francisco, and Ellison's Oracle team were given the status of official challengers instead and, as Oracle and Alinghi's backers could agree on nothing else, no other teams were permitted to participate in a challenge round.

Following a further series of legal manoeuvres it was ruled that the cup races had to take place in Valencia in February, both yachts would be permitted to use mechanical winches powered by a petrol engine and racing could not take place if wave heights exceeded one metre or the wind speed 15 knots.

These rules led Alinghi and Oracle to create hi-tech multihull boats that had more in common with aircraft technology than yachting. Oracle's trimaran was powered by a permanent sail that had the characteristics - and length - of a wing on a Boeing 747. The carbon-fibre mast on Alinghi's catamaran exerted 100 tonnes of pressure on an area the size of a tennis ball and Butterworth confesses he found sailing the boat could be terrifying.

'With Alinghi 5, the sailing is a lot more exacting because it is like flying a plane,' says Butterworth. 'But anybody who sails such a boat knows there is a greater risk because the loads placed on the vessel's superstructure are enormous.'

And that's why Butterworth is sitting in the Alinghi kitchen on a beautiful sunny afternoon when the water seen from the dockside is as flat as a pancake. Out in the bay the waves have been cresting at just over one metre, the kind of chop that could be handled easily by the 12-metre America's Cup boats used in the Louis Vuitton Trophy but which could mean instant and possibly fatal disintegration for Alinghi and Oracle.

'Carbon fibre is not very forgiving,' Butterworth says, tossing a soda can back and forth in his enormous hands. 'You might hear a couple of ticks and if you haven't eased back on something or stopped to check it, then you will get a catastrophic failure. I spent a great deal of my time on Alinghi just listening to the boat, just trying to hear if there is any kind of noise that could suggest the boat is reaching its limits, because if one thing breaks the boat implodes.'

The legal shenanigans surrounding the 33rd America's Cup resulted in a deed of gift contest in which the winner was decided by the best of three races. Over the first two races, Oracle beat Alinghi by a big margin.

The lead up to this year's America's Cup left many sailing fans feeling cheated. Carcelle was one of them and, of the two contestants, it's easy to see who he thinks was most at fault.

'We saw that the America's Cup was going nowhere back in 2009 and no one saw the end of the legal action,' he says. 'Thanks to Oracle, there was legal action, otherwise there would be [Alinghi's] crazy protocol controlling the cup forever. So we have to thank Ellison for taking legal action but all the other teams were left on the shore with nothing to do.'

The position was especially dire for grinders. America's Cup-class boats have between six and eight of these muscled powerhouses, whose job it is to rotate winches at inhuman speed as they haul sails up and down. One of Alinghi's court victories allowed them to use a high-powered petrol engine instead and Oracle, which had previously used winches, followed suit. Sixteen sailors were put out of work. Brian MacInnes, who had worked with Oracle since 2003, was one of them.

'Not having a physical aspect to the sport is a real detriment,' MacInnes, who has found alternative work in Auckland, told a New York newspaper. 'It's not the same without the big guys there. Engines don't tell jokes and they can't look at the sails and see what's going on.'

Like other grinders, who often burn more than 5,000 calories during a race, MacInnes was disheartened by what happened in Valencia.

'There's a lot of things that we just do instinctively when we are sailing and you can't expect that from a machine,' he says. 'It's just not quite right. There are certain sporting events that shouldn't involve engines and I believe the America's Cup [is one of them].'

Butterworth takes the same view - he has become a big critic of the engines and the hi-tech equipment required by Alinghi and Oracle.

'The 2010 America's Cup contest was 95 per cent science and 5 per cent sailing,' he says. 'In previous cups the balance has been more like 80 per cent sailing and 20 per cent science. It's a regrettable statistic; I don't think all this technology has much to do with the sport.'

It is hard to disagree with MacInnes and Butterworth when seated at the rear of an America's Cup boat during the helter-skelter of competition.

Shorn of the Alinghi jacket and positioned just behind the Swedish grinding team on their boat, Artemis, the ring of battle is soon in my ears as the yacht tacks ferociously across the waters of Auckland harbour in a battle with Mascalzone Latino.

As Artemis makes its way up the course, directed by American Paul Cayard, the grinders spin their arms as, face to face, they fight to move their sails and tack faster than the opposition.

The Louis Vuitton Trophy was created for men like Cayard. 'This is the true spirit of sailing, right here,' he says. 'This is not about money - it's all about team spirit, guts and determination.'

For Carcelle, the Louis Vuitton Trophy has been about keeping the spirit of 12-metre yacht competition alive at the highest level, in the hope that the America's Cup will return to its original spirit for its 34th incarnation, due to take place in 2013, probably off the coast of San Francisco.

'It is something mythical and everybody who has had a chance to see [the America's Cup] on the water feels like they have had a chance to touch a myth,' he says. 'That's why we are excited about our proximity to this saga. In 160 years [the cup] has been through many difficult times and has always rebounded.'

This month it will be possible to judge if the America's Cup is emerging from its latest period of crisis. On August 30, the Oracle team will publish its protocol for the next contest. Oracle's owner, Ellison, as the defender, has a chance to come up with a set of rules that will make it easy for him to hold on to the cup or one that opens the competition up again to a wide range of challengers competing on a level playing field.

If Ellison were a sailor first and foremost he would probably opt for the latter, but he is more commonly known as a billionaire with a big ego, which means nobody should bet on the new rules bringing back the true spirit of yachting without a few more rounds inside a New York courthouse.

And with the Louis Vuitton Trophy coming to Hong Kong next year, raising the profile of yachting in China by a few more notches, who's to say there won't be a serious Chinese challenge within the next decade or so?

Butterworth, asked why he'd won so many America's Cup races, once said that all you need is 'a faster boat'. And, as Ellison has proved, spending an estimated US$400 million on Oracle, sometimes the fastest boat is the one with the most money riding on its tail.

If there's one thing the mainland now has in abundance is billionaires. And it can't be long before one of them gets a big enough ego to want his name stamped on the world's oldest sporting trophy.