Yachting: A bit of wind in the sails

By Paul Lewis

America's Cup rivals Grant Dalton and Russell Coutts traded barbed comments at a fund-raiser, writes Paul Lewis.

America's Cup holder Oracle have produced a second yacht optimised for September's lighter winds in San Francisco, according to Emirates Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton during a sharp - and sometimes bitter - exchange with Oracle team chief Sir Russell Coutts on Friday night.

There is much interest in, but little firm intelligence on, Oracle's new AC72 catamaran, launched recently after the shock capsize of the prototype in San Francisco last year. Most observers assess that it has made hydrofoil and wingsail changes, making it faster and more stable - but it will be impossible to judge speed against Team NZ's Aotearoa until the two giant, 72-foot catamarans are racing side-by-side in August and September.

However, what is known is that this is the boat the American syndicate (headed by the controversial Kiwi Coutts) will be racing - and Dalton said he thought it was "a September boat".

"It's windier in July and August," he told a capacity crowd at the Langham hotel in a Duco Events dinner designed to raise funds for popular yachties and former America's Cup sailors Rick Dodson and David Barnes. Their dream is to compete at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics after both contracted multiple sclerosis.

"In September, the wind is typically a bit lighter and it looks to us as though the boat is designed around that.

We have to survive July and August [in the challenger series, which Oracle does not have to sail] when the wind is blowing hard. I think it was Mark Twain who said the coldest winter he ever had was a summer in San Francisco.

"When the wind opposes the tide, it can get seriously rough. It's all right upwind but downwind will be a challenge. We think Oracle's new boat is optimised for those lighter conditions," said Dalton.

The implication is that Oracle have the comparative luxury of preparing a boat for one set of conditions when ETNZ have to hedge their bets a bit. The comment drew a sharp response from Coutts in a night of sharp responses, underlining the pointed and personal rivalry between these two teams.

"We don't see our boat as built for light winds," said Coutts. "That's not what we think and I am interested to see that the opposition does. You know, you don't score points before you start racing - so you can think you are doing well and can be beating your chest but racing is when it really counts."

That was a reference to Team NZ being considered ahead in the America's Cup race to design, build and sail the AC72s - even though Dalton said it looks as though the two camps have moved much closer in terms of performance on the water.

While they may be closer in performance, the two team bosses are no closer in personal terms, as an often acerbic clash demonstrated. Some non-yachting folk mistakenly perceive the America's Cup to be a rich man's plaything with plentiful back-slapping and cosy cadres. It's easy to mistake the esprit de corps of the yachting community as some sort of elite club - but the generosity and generosity of spirit at the fundraisers saw the auction alone recoup well over the targeted $195,000 for Barnes and Dodson.

At America's Cup level, generosity can be rationed short. Dalton perhaps set the tone of the evening by playing a video showing Oracle team supremo and billionaire Larry Ellison interviewed and predicting a direction for the Cup almost entirely opposite to that eventually chosen - monohulls, low budgets, multiple challengers (only three, including Team NZ have been able to negotiate the $100 million cost of mounting a challenge in San Francisco).

"Good on Larry Ellison," said Dalton at one stage, "propped up by all his money."

That irked Coutts and sparked his renowned competitive streak into action. He defended the Cup format, pointing out that history showed the winner usually did not have the biggest budget - and made some sardonic thrusts at a mostly grinning Dalton.

"It's not about money," said Coutts. "It's about smarts. It's not boxing, it's about out-thinking the opposition. Larry Ellison will get to hear about that [the video Dalton played]. Do you think that will help motivate him at all?

"Here's Dalts, a 54-year-old and no one else can be found in New Zealand who is better than a 54-year-old [a reference to Dalton's place in the crew on board Aotearoa]? You know, I have won a few things [Coutts has famously never lost a Cup regatta], Dalts has got a lot of second places."

Dalton responded saying that ETNZ's philosophy was that a team couldn't share in the America's Cup if it couldn't afford it. Coutts: "I'm sorry Larry wouldn't build you a base [Oracle decided to renege on an earlier promise at San Francisco]. He's invested a huge amount in the Cup but maybe that's not enough for you - maybe he should have given you a loan like Ernesto Bertarelli did [the head of former holder Alinghi who brokered a funding deal to keep Team NZ in the Cup at a time when funds were scarce]."

Dalton, asked if this would be ETNZ's last campaign if they didn't win in San Francisco: "Unless you get well north of $100m, you can't play. I don't know whether we can make it again [unless the budgets are reduced]."

Coutts: "Sounds like making excuses to me."

Coutts made some good points about the new Cup format ("I doubt we'd go back to monohulls; you can't race them close to the shore and let people see them. It'd be a great idea to have an event out at sea where no one can see it").

Dalton laid to rest the old bogey of the Cup going to Dubai because of sponsors Emirates should Team NZ win it: "We categorically exist to bring the Cup back to New Zealand."

As Coutts said, it all comes down to the racing and he closed with some ominous words (which may refer to Oracle's new, as yet unseen, wingsail for their new boat) or some other unforeseen gambit: "I think there will be some developments over the next three or four months which will potentially change things."

- Herald on Sunday

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