Yachting: Ego-driven feud finally reaches water

By Dana Johannsen

The bitter dispute between warring rivals Alinghi and BMW Oracle will come to a head next week in what will be the highest stakes regatta in the 159-year history of the America's Cup.

At the centre of the long-running feud is Swiss tycoon Ernesto Bertarelli, whose Alinghi team are the holders of the Cup and therefore owners of the event, and Larry Ellison, the head of BMW Oracle and the fourth-richest man in America, who has spent millions aggressively blocking any moves by Bertarelli to claim the upper hand.

Nearly three years and several hundreds of millions of dollars later, the battle will be decided by a best-of-three shoot-out in the Spanish port of Valencia.

Each of the power-crazed billionaires have spent substantial amounts of their fortunes (conservative estimates put both teams' combined spend at around US$250 million ($362 million) building state-of-the-art multihulls for an event that, weather permitting, could all be over in the space of three days. You don't need to follow the game closely to realise that with the rivals so horribly exposed, there are going to be some very bruised egos at the end of next week.

Right in the thick of the battle will be two high-profile New Zealand sailors - Alinghi skipper Brad Butterworth and his former teammate Russell Coutts, who is now in charge of BMW Oracle.

But the real stars in the lead-up to the event have been the two space age crafts that will enter the start box on Monday night (NZT).

The giant multihulls developed by each side are unlike anything seen before. Alinghi's 90-foot catamaran has a beam equal to the width of two tennis courts and a canting mast that towers over 17 storeys. BMW Oracle's weapon of choice is a trimaran, which sports a 190ft-high wing serving as a sail.

There has been very little seen or spoken about the manoeuvrability of these boats. Both are extremely difficult to sail, but reports out of Valencia suggest USA 17 is the slightly more nimble of the two.

Given the sheer size and speed of the yachts, both teams are likely to employ very different tactics to traditional match-racing regattas, with the race likely to resemble a flat-out drag race to the end.

Yachting commentator Peter Lester believes a telling moment as to the manoeuvring capability of the yachts will be in the pre-start.

"If you're looking for a golden moment, I think it will be two minutes before the gun when the boats have to turn and come back to the startline."

But the biggest factor of all is expected to be reliability. When Butterworth said this week the key to winning will be "probably not breaking", the Alinghi skipper was only being slightly tongue-in-cheek.

"It's a design contest that's full of innovation, above and below the water, testing the limits of structures and materials. I think it's going to be the fastest boat, but also the most reliable boat that will win this time," he said.

The boats are not just extremely difficult to sail but potentially downright dangerous because of the power these high-tech yet fragile yachts are able to generate. Make a mistake and they can catapult the crews into the water. Overload them and towering masts can come crashing down.

Because of this, and perhaps because the twin-hulled Swiss boat is thought to have an advantage over the challenger in lighter wind, Alinghi imposed a rule stipulating no racing in winds above 15 knots.

But with BMW Oracle's yacht favouring heavier conditions, the American syndicate sought to overturn the rule and this week a race jury decided that the principal race officer - another Kiwi, Harold Bennett - will determine what constitutes fair and safe conditions.

CUP MATCH

* Valencia, 9.45pm Monday, live SS2.
* This year's event is the 33rd staging of the America's Cup, 159 years after the first race in 1851 around the Isle of Wight.
* The defender (Alinghi) faces a challenger team (BMW Oracle) in the best of three races off Valencia.
* Races one and three (if necessary) will be a windward-leeward course with 20-mile (32km) legs, 40 miles in total. Race two is a triangle, with 13-mile legs, 39 miles in total.
* Subsequent races every two days.

- NZ Herald

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