Humble trophy has plenty of admirers

The mega rich will spare no effort - or money - in the chase for the coveted America's Cup

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 4:18am


The 34th America's Cup, the world's oldest international sporting trophy, has run into rough water even before the competition begins off San Francisco Bay.

The tight-knit yachting community was stunned on May 9 by the death of British sailor Andrew Simpson in the capsizing of Artemis Racing's AC72 catamaran while training on the bay.

Even so, the eyes of the sport's elite remain on the prize, and four teams - stocked with the world's most accomplished sailors and backed by millions of dollars - will gather for the start of competition on July 7.

That's the launch date for the Louis Vuitton Cup, in which three would-be challengers - Sweden's Artemis, Italy's Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand - battle for the right to duel defender Oracle Team USA in the America's Cup in September.

The spectacular AC72 catamarans - 72-foot (22-metre) double-hulled technological marvels powered by 40-metre rigid wing sails - will race against the backdrop of Alcatraz and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge.

It's all the vision of Oracle Team USA owner Larry Ellison, the billionaire co-founder of tech giant Oracle whose triumph in the 33rd edition in 2010 gave him the right to establish the protocol for this year's regatta.

Ellison's Oracle Team USA, sailing under the colours of San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, defeated Switzerland's Alinghi 5 in 2010 in a competition marred by legal wrangling over the rules that began after Alinghi won the 32nd renewal in 2007.

The competitors didn't even race the same type of boat - Oracle triumphing with their 90-foot (27-metre) trimaran over Alinghi's equally huge twin-hull.

The arcane rules of the America's Cup, first set out in the original Deed of Gift in 1852, have made for plenty of off-water wrangling in the history of the event.

The prestige of the coveted trophy has also spawned skullduggery, with competitors resorting to spying on rivals in a bid to gain any advantage in a sport in which design advances are at a premium.

This year is no exception. Mediators have already been called in to settle a dispute among the teams on the implementation of new safety measures brought in after Simpson's death.

And Oracle were fined and docked some training days after rivals Luna Rossa complained the US syndicate came within 200 metres of the Italian boat during training - breaching the limit established to prevent spying.

While San Francisco Bay promises a spectacular backdrop to competition - and a rare chance for more spectators to actually see the races from land - the choice of venue has also made for local legal challenges over funding and environmental impact.

Such matters probably didn't figure when what is now sailing's most prestigious trophy was first contested around the Isle of Wight in southern England in 1851. It was renamed after the first yacht to win the trophy, the schooner America.

The Cup remained in the hands of the New York Yacht Club from 1852 until 1983 when it was won by the challenger, Australia II, ending the longest winning streak in the history of sport.

New Zealand's Black Magic broke the US dominance again in 1995, with Team New Zealand keeping the Kiwis' hands on yachting's holy grail in 2000 in the only edition not to feature a US competitor. It finally returned to Europe after Alinghi beat Team New Zealand 5-0 off Auckland in 2003, a trophy they successfully defended in Valencia in 2007.

Team New Zealand, financed by the country's government and sponsor Emirates Airlines, is the only syndicate in this year's competition not backed by a wealthy individual.

Artemis belong to Swedish oil magnate Torbjorn Tornqvist, and Luna Rossa are backed by Prada fashion house chief executive Patrizio Bertelli.

They and Ellison are part of a long line of titans of industry drawn to the event, a list that includes railroad magnate Harold Vanderbilt, whose defence of the Cup in 1930 made the cover of Time magazine.

That year, Thomas Lipton, creator of the Lipton tea brand, epitomised the seductive appeal of the Cup - in reality a pretty but unremarkable silver pitcher - when he vowed after his fifth failure: "I will try again."

After a long pause, Lipton repeated a little more loudly: "Yes, I will try again," although he died the next year without ever getting the chance.