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Donkin on Sailing

September 2008 - America's Cup looms over the iShares cup, Amsterdam

On a stretch of Amsterdam canal bordered by a housing estate, bemused residents walk their dogs and push prams in the September sunshine as high octane catamarans dart alongside working barges and tatty weekend motor boats.

Children are feeding the ducks while some of the biggest names in sailing buzz by in their Extreme 40 catamarans. Fighting a strong breeze the yachts are spectacular, displaying breathtaking acrobatics, stunning acceleration and crunching cartwheels. But light airs had reduced the series finale to park pond tactics.

In spite of the popping corks for team Alinghi, the series winner, there was a feeling that for the Swiss-based team the event was something of sideshow, a necessary distraction ahead of a bigger prize - the 157-year-old America's Cup - the oldest trophy in sport.

The quayside was a who's who in sailing -Ed Baird, Alinghi's America's Cup winning helm, Mike Sanderson, the last Volvo Ocean Race skipper, and a clutch of Olympic gold medallists in Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson.

But among the team huddles, talk of the America's Cup was never far away. It has been the same wherever the tight-knit professional yachting community has converged throughout the summer.

"We're the guys who are suffering in all this," said one cup veteran bitterly at the Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in Sardinia earlier in the month. "No-one seems to care about us."

While the big ocean races - The Vendee Globe and The Volvo Ocean Race - are ready for the off in a matter of weeks, the future of the America's Cup, the showcase of world match racing, remains becalmed in the New York State Court.

Neither Ernesto Bertarelli, Alinghi president and cup holder nor Larry Ellison, chief executive of Oracle and prospective challenger with his BMW Oracle team, have been prepared to give sufficient ground in their high stakes legal dispute that is proving costly both on and off the water.

"Yes, it's expensive," says Bertarelli, who has commissioned a multi-hulled 90ft cup boat that may never sail in pursuit of the coveted trophy. BMW Oracle Racing has already launched the trimaran that Ellison wants to field in his challenge.

A New York court is scheduled to hear his appeal in the New Year against the reinstatement on appeal of the Spanish Club Nautico Espanol de Vela as the rightful Challenger of Record for the 33rd America's Cup.

"This was my biggest fear when I first entered the contest. I'm a passionate sailor and I didn't want the cup to fall in to legal proceedings. There has been a tendency in the past to want to win the regatta on land rather than offshore," says Bertarelli.

The kind of legal shenanigans that have marred earlier challenges appeared to have been consigned to the past in the 2007 event when a round robin series of matches among would-be challenges in the Louis Vuitton Cup fought it out in single-hulled boats off Valencia. At last it seemed the event had a clear format that could become a cyclical fixture over three or four year intervals in the sailing calendar.

But Ellison objected to what he believed was a manipulation of the rules in a way that would give the defenders too great an advantage. The governing deed of gift drawn up by the New York Yacht club was designed to give the Challenger of Record the right to choose the boat design while the defender could choose the venue.

There is no doubt that Ellison has a point. The hastily formed CNEV club was created as a vehicle for a new protocol that would retain the round-robin series. It left Alinghi holding too many aces for Ellison's liking.

As court proceedings continued, on-the-water interest shifted to the iShares Cup for some of the most serious America's Cup teams keen to hone their multihull skills, or, in the case of the British-based contender and iShares series runner-up, Team Origin, simply to keep the core team together and competing.

If Bertarelli and Ellison are looking increasingly like squabbling sisters, the Cinderella of sailing's longest running pantomime has to be Sir Keith Mills - Team Origin.

Mills has been working hard behind the scenes to ensure that he and the other contenders will indeed go to the ball. "There are quiet discussions going on between the team principles in an attempt to resolve this impasse. I think we're progressively optimistic that a resolution will be found in a month or two," he says.

The view is shared by Mike Sanderson, Team Origin director, who believes that the warring parties will see sense and settle their differences out of court.

"There's too much to lose for those guys now. Do they really want to gamble on the ruling of that last court?" The outcome, however, remains unclear. Brad Butterworth, the Alinghi team skipper insists that a multihulled duel is a "strong possibility."

In reality Alinghi are in the driving seat whatever the event. If they don't get to choose the competition boat they have ensured that they have a winning team in either multihull or single-hulled yachts, while picking the venue, a choice that would remain their prerogative, means that they can focus on conditions that suit the team.

Whatever happens in the short term there seems to be a widespread belief that the long term future of the event is in single-hulled competition. "I might be wrong but I'd be very surprised if the future of the America's Cup is multihulls," says Ben Ainslie, Britain's three-time Olympic gold medal winner and member of Team Origin.

Mills believes that a resolution of the dispute by December would allow challengers to begin competing next year, initially in the 2007 boats, for a final in 2011 after a restoration of the single-hull round-robin format.

But what of those two state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar trimarans? "I'm sure some museum will be happy to take them off their hands," says Mills.

In the meantime Mark Turner, chief executive of OC Events, organisers of the iShare Cup, is planning to spread the Extreme 40 one-design format to events in Asia and the Middle East in future.

Law suits aside, professional sailing appears to be entering a new era of global appeal with its mixture of ocean endurance events and round-the-cans racing that can offer close-up action for sponsors, sitting among the competing crews. If only they could guarantee the wind.

See also: iShares cup

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