Yachting: Bring on the racing - please

VALENCIA - Sailors in the America's Cup are hearing it from all sides, even from friends and family.

Why aren't the monster multi-hulls that are supposedly so fast and powerful having a go at it out on the Mediterranean?

Too little wind one day. Then, waves that were too big.

Isn't dealing with those conditions part of sailing?

It is and it isn't, say crewmen with American challenger BMW Oracle Racing and two-time defender Alinghi of Switzerland. Tonight, the bitter rivals will have their third shot at getting in Race 1, although there could once again be the proverbial confused sea state that kept the boats in port on Wednesday.

So far, "confused sea state" seems to sum up this America's Cup, which is being sailed in the Northern Hemisphere in the winter for the first time because two of the world's richest men couldn't agree otherwise.

It hasn't been smooth sailing.

In fact, there hasn't been any sailing at all. The only notable nautical movement came when Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison had his 450-foot luxury yacht Rising Sun - the one with the basketball court that doubles as a helicopter pad - moved from out on the Med into the shelter of Port America's Cup when frigid winds gusted around 35 knots Thursday morning.

Rising Sun dwarfs Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli's yacht, Vava, which is moored on the other side of the harbour. Ellison is richer than Bertarelli, but has never sailed in an America's Cup match before now, while Bertarelli has twice hoisted the oldest trophy in international sports.

The two moguls don't like each other and have sent potshots across each other's bow. There could have been a memorable owners' news conference last week, but Ellison skipped out, feeling slighted that syndicate CEO Russell Coutts wasn't invited, as well.

The offers to resolve the impasse have come from several quarters.

Richard Branson has been in town, for example. The wealthy British adventurer says he will try to end the bickering between his billionaire friends so the America's Cup doesn't spend any more time in the courts.

Branson said that holder Alinghi and challenger BMW Oracle's legal wrangling "shouldn't happen, it spoils a great sport. Somebody should have banged heads together a long time ago."

Branson saw Ernesto Bertarelli last night before meeting Larry Ellison. The Virgin Atlantic president says he will try to ensure there are no more court cases so "this sport is looked after for future generations."

Branson said Virgin could form a team for the next edition only if current British syndicate Team Origin were to lose its funding.

The soap opera aside, Brad Webb, the bowman on the trimaran USA, can almost feel the outside world's eyes roll every time there's some kind of delay.

"That's a tough one, and we get that from family and friends from outside the game looking on the inside just trying to figure out how the sport works," the New Zealander said.

"But outdoor sports still have this problem," Webb said. "You could go to a golf tournament and it could rain all day, or Formula One that's called off because there's too much rain or there's crash or whatever.

"For us there seems to be more elements of the weather involved. There's obviously the sea state and the wind. Generally, rain doesn't put us off, but there's more environment or elements."

USA and Alinghi 5, a catamaran, have been billed as the fastest, most technologically advanced boats built in the 159-year history of the America's Cup. USA even has a 223-foot wing sail with flaps just like an airplane wing.

But the 90-by-90-foot carbon-fiber beasts are more fragile than the sloops that normally compete in the America's Cup, and have a certain range of conditions for favourable racing.

Then there's the added fact that these marvels of design and engineering are following basic rules written 123 years ago - and the present hasn't meshed smoothly with a long-ago era of sailing, if at all. The race committee, for instance, is trying to set a course that's 20 miles long instead of the normal course of two or three miles.

"With these boats, they're bigger, they're quite fragile," Webb said. "So we don't need to go out there and blow them apart. As fun as that might be for TV viewers, it's not going to get us a result."

Then there are dockside rumours.

Racing was called off yesterday because principal race officer Harold Bennett didn't feel confident sending the big boats into waves of 4 to 6 feet that in some areas were churning like a washing machine.

"The race committee went out to have a look at the conditions," said Ed Baird, a backup helmsman with Alinghi. "My understanding is the Golden Gate Yacht Club representative spent the day being seasick off the back. So it was pretty rugged conditions. So yeah, I mean, you could be out there, but you wouldn't have much of a race."

Tom Ehman was the Golden Gate representative on the committee boat.

"Contrary to rumors spread by Alinghi, I did not puke," Ehman said. "I might have felt better if I had. That was the first time I felt queasy since I was a teenager."

The race committee uses a 50-foot power catamaran. BMW Oracle Racing thinks that if the race committee had a bigger boat, it might have a better feel for how the racing boats would handle the conditions.

Ellison and Coutts, the most dominant skipper in America's Cup history, have said the Swiss seem unwilling to race in wind above 10 knots and anything but flat water.

And so it goes.

"Most of us have been in this game for a long time," Webb said. "We've all been in these situations before where we've been sitting around waiting for it to happen. There is an element of frustration, but it's a matter of managing that. You find levels of intensity to maintain through days like yesterday and throughout a week like this, knowing that when it goes, you need to find that little bit to kick into gear."

That is, when the sea state isn't so confused.

- AP

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