Yachting: There's a way out: Dalton

By Paul Lewis

Emirates Team New Zealand suggest changes could be incorporated in the US Coast Guard certification. Photo / AP
Emirates Team New Zealand suggest changes could be incorporated in the US Coast Guard certification. Photo / AP

Emirates Team New Zealand have proposed a course through the tangle of uncertainty and self-interest that has temporarily becalmed the 34th America's Cup.

The suggested safety changes made after the startling death of Artemis crewman Andrew Simpson have a sting in the tail. They potentially allow Cup syndicates to alter basic rules affecting the boat and the event - with the attendant fear that teams will push for changes that benefit them under the convenient banner of safety.

Now, however, Team NZ boss Grant Dalton believes there is a better way, allowing the safety changes still being discussed by the teams to be made without changing the America's Cup class rule - the strict principles covering the properties of the giant AC72 catamarans which will contest the Cup.

Dalton says the changes can be made by incorporating them in the US Coast Guard's certification of the event, a permit which must be granted before the Cup can go ahead.

"We think all the safety changes can be made without any changes to the [class] rule. It's important to do that because when people start screwing with the class rule and making changes to the boats, someone will always work out a way to gain personal advantage," he said.

Certainly such an approach would retain the design advantage that teams like ETNZ feel they have - and would not allow others to make structural changes to the boats to catch up. Wind limits - reduced by up to 10 knots - are a slightly different case, requiring a change to the protocol (the set of Cup rules governing the event as opposed to the yachts). But Team NZ have already agreed to that, albeit reluctantly, saying, as Dalton put it: "It's not the end of the world." Class rule changes, however, need the unanimous consent of all teams so ETNZ have a veto there.

It's to be hoped the changes can be made as smoothly as Dalton suggests - with about a month to go, the world's greatest sailing regatta is in dire need of clarity and credibility in the countdown to the starting gun (opening day July 4, fleet racing July 5).

The elephant in the room, as Dalton puts it, is whether Artemis will make it to the starting line late or at all. There are hints they may not even be ready to sail for the whole of July. They don't have a new wingsail yet. Their boat may require structural modifications, particularly if it has the same kind of hull design reports suggest may have been at fault in the Simpson tragedy.

"Then they have to learn to sail it, so they can push it comfortably without getting into trouble. If that was us, we couldn't do it in the time left," said Dalton. "We are not in favour of delaying [the event]. We and others have too many obligations and arrangements in place."

If Artemis are missing, the somewhat farcical prospect of Emirates Team NZ racing day after day against Italy's Luna Rossa applies - they being the only two challengers left.

If Artemis turn up late, there is a possibility that the regatta could be altered so that the winner of Team NZ vs Luna Rossa goes direct to the Louis Vuitton semifinal, with Artemis and the loser racing off over another long period for the other spot - instead of the three-team round-robin regatta.

In either case, a uniquely American icon comes to mind; he has big, black ears, a squeaky voice, wears red shorts and yellow shoes and Donald Duck is one of his best friends.

"It wasn't exactly Disneyland even with Artemis there," said Dalton. "We have been saying for two-and-a-half years that there was risk of the event not attracting enough challengers but not everyone was listening."

Artemis will be under enormous pressure from Oracle to compete, even as the holders' cherished dream of a state-of-the-art, high-tech, fan-friendly, TV-friendly competition designed to bring sailing to a whole new audience and to make it the F1 or the Nascar of the seas is already in tatters.

You can feel some sympathy for Oracle and Sir Russell Coutts' vision for the Cup. The concept of the AC72 catamarans is absorbing but the cost of competing kept challengers away and now the cost of the Artemis accident is one life and the potential sapping of interest.

The lower wind limits will likely mean more postponed races; fewer days of racing for those fans not staying for the nearly-three-months of the regatta. Ironically, part of the intent of the giant catamarans was that they would race in almost all weathers at breathtaking speeds. Now they will likely be subject to the same wind restrictions that frustrated broadcasters at Valencia in 2007; TV is not renowned for its patience with a sport with off-again, on-again action.

Even more ironically, both ETNZ and Oracle have been happily sailing round San Francisco Bay in winds higher than those now suggested as safe for the event.

- NZ Herald

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