MADRID: One of the most contentious editions of the America’s Cup in its 159-year history begins on Monday after a legal battle that both captivated and exasperated the international sailing community for two and a half years.
But a US judge may yet have the final word on who wins the oldest trophy in international sport, as a pending legal case that could overturn the outcome on the water is to be decided later this month.
Swiss defender Alinghi is to meet US challenger Oracle in the Spanish Mediterranean port of Valencia in a best-of-three duel to decide the 33rd edition of yachting’s blue riband event.
Oracle’s massive trimaran will face off against Alinghi’s huge catamaran in what promises to be a spectacular display of competitive sailing.
That the two teams ever reached this point seems extraordinary.
Alinghi and Oracle — owned respectively by Swiss biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli and US software mogul Larry Ellison, two of the world’s richest men — became embroiled in an increasingly bitter legal conflict after Alinghi won the last America’s Cup in Valencia in July 2007.
Oracle accused the Swiss syndicate of trying to bend the rules in its favour for the 33rd edition. Alinghi has charged Oracle is seeking to win the Cup in the court rather than on the water.
The Supreme Court of the State of New York decided in April that the Cup should be settled by a one-on-one multihull duel in February instead of the traditional fully-fledged regatta involving several teams.
Another dispute involved the location. Alinghi chose the Gulf emirate of Ras al-Khaimah but the court backed an Oracle challenge in favour of Valencia.
And the event was again thrown into doubt in December when Oracle accused the Swiss syndicate of infringing nationality rules by allegedly using US-made sails for its catamaran, something Alinghi denies.
The New York court is due to consider that case on February 25.
That allows the contest in Valencia to go ahead on Monday. But it also means that an Alinghi victory could be overturned.
Bertarelli said it was now important for Alinghi to win the Cup “on the water” even if he lost afterwards in court.
The 44-year-old Italian-born Swiss national, who was a member of the Alinghi crew in 2007, is to personally take the helm of Alinghi 5, skippered by New Zealander Brad Butterworth.
Australia’s James Spithill will steer Oracle, which will be led by New Zealander Russell Coutts, who has won the America’s Cup as skipper three times — the last time with Alinghi in 2003.
The weather in mid-winter, with the possibility of strong winds, could delay the races, as well as adding further uncertainty to the outcome.
Both sides agree that calmer weather would favour Alinghi’s lighter boat but stiff winds would give Oracle the edge.
The showdown in Valencia is to take place over a maximum of just three days — on February 8, 10 and 12.
That’s in contrast to the last Cup in 2007, which was spread over three months and involved multiple challengers.
The Cup has seen controversies before. The revolutionary US catamaran Stars and Stripes beat New Zealand’s KZ-1 yacht in a similar one-on-one grudge match in 1988.
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 trophy remained in the hands of the New York Yacht Club of the United States from 1852 until 1983 when the Cup 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.
This year’s contest can be followed live and for free on the Internet at www.americascup.com. — AFP