Yachting: Cup 'race' gets a whole new meaning

By Paul Lewis

Protest by black sailors with mystery funding sparks conspiracy theories fuelled by revenge

It's the latest legal sideshow in the America's Cup: a black American sailing group trying to halt the regatta by court injunction because they feel the defender did not let them take part.

It seems destined to fail; stopping the Cup in its tracks while an organisation takes months or years to mount a realistic challenge seems an insult to common sense.

But a halt to the Cup is being sought though perhaps the real issue is: where is the money coming from? A heavyweight firm of US lawyers, McDermott, Will & Emery, is involved and, with the bill already likely to be on the way to US$1 million ($1.26m), there is curiosity about the source of the funds.

The plaintiff, the African Diaspora Maritime (ADM), is not a wealthy organisation. There are plenty of rich black Americans who might be prepared to fund the action but why not be visible?

The conspiracy theorists wonder if the invisible hand of one Ernesto Bertarelli, the billionaire behind former holders Alinghi, is pulling the strings, though he has apparently denied that privately.

There were even rumours Emirates Team New Zealand were behind it, though the Kiwis have laughed that off; it's difficult to imagine government money going into a US$1m lawsuit.

Bertarelli, who lost the Cup in 2010 to a one-on-one sailing challenge from Oracle billionaire Larry Ellison after years of legal and courtroom jousting, has no reason to love Ellison. The only clue to the funding of this latest courtroom action in the America's Cup was that some of it came from people "who don't like Larry Ellison" (San Francisco Weekly, 2012).

That was attributed to Charles M Kithcart, the CEO of African Diaspora Maritime, an African-American organisation created to motivate, inspire, and teach problem-solving and co-operation by introducing early disciplines of maritime knowledge. Its website says: "Black fishermen, traders, captains, and crews have a lengthy record in transatlantic maritime history. From the earliest seafaring peoples of Africa to American whalers, they have harvested the fruits of both coastal and deep waters. They also manned ships as members of the Union Army during the Civil War and rose through the ranks of the United States Navy during World War II. This tradition continues today as black mariners aspire to the pinnacle of sport sailing, the conquest of The America's Cup."

So not only is this a legal argument, it also brings into play the tricky socio-political minefields of race and discrimination. Black sailors are unknown in the America's Cup; yachting is an overwhelmingly white pastime.

ADM applied to the America's Cup defending yacht club, the Golden Gate Yacht Club (the holder is Oracle Team USA but all holders have to defend the trophy through a host yacht club). They said they sent a US$25,000 ($31,000) entry fee but were knocked back by GGYC, sparking the court action.

In one interview last year, Kithcart was quoted as saying: "I just want to integrate a sport that really needs some integration." His dream is to build a multi-cultural team of sailors to compete in the Cup. "We want to compete. We want to participate."

Kithcart said he had lined up legendary yacht designer Dave Pedrick to create his boat. "We don't want to be excluded. There's a history of exclusion of African Americans in this country, and it doesn't look good when a team of African Americans is excluded from something like this."

In denying ADM's application, GGYC claimed that ADM had not paid the $25,000 entry fee on time (it was later refunded), that they didn't have a designer nor the money to fund a team, all points ADM contested.

It looked only a PR stunt; at best an irritant until this week the New York Supreme Court decision finding for the GGYC on an issue of breach of contract was overturned on appeal - leading to the possibility that the ADM would seek a halt in the current regatta to see whether it could be included. GGYC are appealing the appeal.

ADM's original contention was that, being American, they would take part in a defender series with Oracle Team USA - fighting it out to see who would defend the Cup. Defender series are not unknown in the Cup although in recent years, defenders have preferred to go it alone to avoid the nuisance of winning the Cup only to be gazumped by another yacht/team. The last defender series was in 1995, won by the Cup holder at the time, Dennis Conner.

Oracle initially talked about a defender series but, because of the costs of mounting a challenge (US$100 million ($126m) is needed to be competitive), no one applied - except for ADM, who then felt they were not taken seriously.

GGYC felt ADM's suit was without merit. Last year GGYC spokesman and America's Cup director Tom Ehman was quoted as saying that ADM didn't have the resources to mount a challenge: "We're under no obligation to accept multiple teams. It's a huge distraction when teams compete without the proper preparation, only to get immediately walked all over. It could easily end up with one of the boats getting damaged or the sailors getting hurt."

Prophetic words, as it turned out. Yet Artemis' capsize and the fatality of crew member Bart Simpson, plus the paucity of challengers; one-boat races and one team not even on the water yet, have helped the ADM contention that the regatta could be put on ice until ADM have got a boat and team together to challenge Oracle in a defender series. That could take years.

It seems preposterous to contemplate that the regatta could be held up in this way. But this is America and the America's Cup. Anything could happen.

The most likely result is that this court case will quietly disappear - and maybe Bertarelli as the silent, wealthy puppeteer is a bridge too far. However, Bertarelli was undone by Ellison's concerted court attacks, winning a one-on-one challenge on the water. Alinghi have long held the view that Ellison hijacked the Cup through the courts.

What better revenge?

- Herald on Sunday

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