Yachting: Facebook Cup fell flat

By Paul Lewis

The America's Cup futures of Oracle's James Spithill (left) and Team NZ's Dean Barker are uncertain. Photo / Getty Images
The America's Cup futures of Oracle's James Spithill (left) and Team NZ's Dean Barker are uncertain. Photo / Getty Images

No matter what happens in the first two races in the America's Cup this morning, this isn't just a regatta - it's a watershed.

The America's Cup is at a crossroads, if a nautical trophy can ever be at a crossroads. Whoever wins the Cup will be able to plot its progress and hopefully lift it out of its current mire.

The impressive vision of billionaire Larry Ellison and his CEO Sir Russell Coutts has failed, though the Cup match may retrieve some lost ground for them if it is as close and fiercely fought as anticipated.

The move from "the Flintstones generation to the Facebook generation", the much-repeated quote encapsulating Oracle Team USA's hopes for the 34th America's Cup and onwards, hasn't happened.

Sure, the boats are fascinating and, as someone lucky enough to have been taken out for a blat on one, they are exhilarating machines; jet fighters of the sea. But, to borrow a Facebook term, you get the feeling that the Oracle tenure of the Cup has seen them de-friended a lot.

You can only admire the vision; Ellison and Coutts made some extremely clever assessments and hatched some ambitious plans. Sailing would move inshore so spectators could see it. Television would be on board, bringing the tussle of match racing to life.

The boats would be like Nascar on the water - something Coutts maintains neither he nor Ellison ever said. There would be up to 15 challengers; the America's Cup World Series would be a warm-up event using 45-foot catamarans that would ignite interest in sponsors and fans around the world, releasing the Cup from the need to have Ellison's billions underwriting it.

In the end, little of what was planned has come to pass. The lack of challengers, high costs, trickiness of the 72-foot, on-the-edge boats, the capsizes, the fatal accident, interest-dampening safety recommendations, one-boat races, no-boat races, squabbles with San Francisco over money and then ... the cheating saga.

All have warped what was intended to be a coming out parade for international sailing into more of a funeral procession.

Oracle's grasp on the Cup took two-and-a-half years to firm. As they fought the court case to force then holders Alinghi on the water for a one-on-one challenge, so public interest waned.

Team NZ and sponsor Louis Vuitton, alarmed at the feeling against the Cup, were moved to stage the Louis Vuitton Pacific series in Auckland in 2009. It used boats that competed in the 2007 Cup in Valencia - America's Cup racing without the America's Cup.

Then, as the Oracle plans firmed, some hope; that was dashed when only three challengers showed up.

The capsizes and fatal accident involving Artemis sailor Andrew Simpson plunged the event into more difficulty. The America's Cup was now caught between a brave new world and an old world constraint: responsibility and liability.

The Cup of thrills and spills was becoming the Cup of debate and argument. Oracle found themselves cast where they had previously cast Alinghi - villain of the piece. Even in the US and in San Francisco, some locals are keen to see the Cup go to New Zealand.

The culture of arrogance that some suggest - perhaps unfairly - that Oracle has grown has morphed into a full-blown perception, whether accurate or not.

Even that wouldn't have been so bad had the cheating not arisen. Now the only thing that can save this regatta is a stirring Cup match.

Even with that, win or lose, some players in the 34th America's Cup may be missing from the next.

Larry EllisonLet's start at the top. If Oracle defend the Cup, there is much talk that Ellison will host the next one either in San Francisco again or at the Hawaiian island of Lanai he bought recently for US$300 million. It may be that he, like everyone else involved in this Cup, would look at keeping the catamarans but downsizing them and the number of people needed on each team, to attract more challengers.

Lose, and there must be raised the prospect of another court case - especially if Oracle lose narrowly. The jury's two-point docking of Oracle could then come under legal attack. Ellison could walk away if he decides he's had enough but he is a committed sailor. He also has yet to prove he can really win one of these things on the water.

The big multi-hull challenge against Alinghi in 2010 was a success but that was a deed of gift challenge, which means there is far greater design freedom. Oracle turned up with a giant trimaran and a wingsail; Alinghi turned up with a giant catamaran and soft sails - and got nuked. No one else was involved.

Ellison hates to lose and still hasn't really demonstrated he can win the Cup against a full field of challengers and defend it against same. That might keep him in.

Sir Russell CouttsThere are already strong rumours that Coutts will not be at the next America's Cup. There are already suggestions he and Oracle could part ways and, although there are mutterings that he might end up at Artemis, he has denied that.

While the jury findings over the cheating saga in no way implicated Coutts - and he maintained strongly that no Oracle management had any idea of what was going on - that will not stop Ellison pondering the mud splashed over the brand of the parent company.

Jimmy SpithillA big 'don't know' here. A brilliant and committed yachtsman, the cheating saga has not helped his aura even though there has been no suggestion of any involvement by him. With a greater 'rock star' personality than most other America's Cup skippers, he may be tarred as part of the Facebook generation that, in the end, didn't amount to much. May need a win to stave off the in-house challenge of Sir Ben Ainslie.

Tom EhmanFor many years a real force behind the scenes in America's Cups. Director of external affairs for the 34th America's Cup, highly intelligent and a superb politician, Ehman is also vice-commodore of host club, the Golden Gate Yacht Club. It will be interesting to see if his star has waned or brightened after this regatta.Stephen BarclayCEO of the America's Cup Event Authority. Obviously needs a win to keep his job but it is not certain he would hang on to it even with that - if Ellison wants to change things.

Grant DaltonNow 56 but as fit as a rat with a wicked sense of humour and strong case of tell-it-like-it-is-itis. Has said he won't be around if Team NZ don't win this but ... better hope he is.

Tony RaeNow 52 and this is almost certainly his last America's Cup. One of the real hard-men sailors of New Zealand yachting, he's enjoyed one of the stellar Cup careers and could maybe move into team management if that suited him and them.

Dean BarkerThis feels like Barker's time. If he doesn't win this one, the common consensus might be that he won't.

A hugely talented and focused sailor, he has all the intensity and drive of Coutts and Spithill, just in a more laid-back container. A genuinely nice man (some maintain that's a problem), it may indeed be now or never for him.

By the time this is read, one or hopefully two races in the final face-off between Emirates Team New Zealand and Oracle Team USA will have been completed.

We may have the first inklings of who has the faster boat. We may also have the first hints about the direction of various career paths.

- Herald on Sunday

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