America's Cup will race first, talk later
By BERNIE WILSON
Stow the lawyers and bring on the big boats. The most contentious America's Cup in 159 years is finally out of the courtroom and in the hands of the sailors.
Justice Shirley Kornreich of the New York State Supreme Court yesterday told two-time defending champion Alinghi of Switzerland and American challenger BMW Oracle Racing to go sail their best-of-three nautical grudge match scheduled to begin Feb. 8 in Valencia, Spain, in giant multihulls.
According to both teams, Kornreich said during a conference call with lawyers for bickering billionaires Ernesto Bertarelli and Larry Ellison that she won't expedite a hearing in BMW Oracle Racing's motion challenging the legality of the sails on the 90-foot catamaran Alinghi 5.
"This is excellent news," Alinghi boss Bertarelli said in a statement. "We are delighted that BMW Oracle's attempts to disqualify Alinghi and to win the America's Cup in court have been denied. We look forward to meeting them on the start line here in Valencia on 8 February to race for the Cup; something they can no longer try to avoid."
Alinghi officials said earlier this week they'd forfeit the oldest trophy in international sports if San Francisco-based BMW Oracle Racing succeeded in getting the Swiss sails disqualified.
Regardless of which team wins, the America's Cup likely will be tied up in court long after the sails are doused, just like it was after Dennis Conner routed New Zealander Michael Fay in 1988 in a mismatch off San Diego.
Once pals and now bitter rivals, Ellison, the head of software giant Oracle Corp., and Bertarelli, a biotech mogul, have been locked in a convoluted court fight since July 2007. Two of the world's richest men, they have sparred over rules, dates, the venue and, most recently, the clause in the 1887 Deed of Gift that says the yachts must be constructed in the team's home country.
BMW Oracle Racing said in a recent motion that Alinghi's sails violate the Deed of Gift because they were made by North Sails at Minden, Nev. Alinghi said the sails were constructed in Switzerland with blanks built by North Sails.
BMW Oracle Racing said it's not trying to disqualify Alinghi's boat, but wanted the issue clarified before racing begins.
"It is unfortunate that the legality of Alinghi's American-made sails probably will not be decided before the Match," BMW Oracle Racing spokesman Tom Ehman said. "If they use illegal sails and win, we would still want to see this issue resolved."
The legal tiff aside, this is expected to be the most extreme, thrilling racing in the long history of the America's Cup.
Alinghi 5 and BMW Oracle Racing's trimaran, USA, are 90 feet on the waterline and about as big across. The boats dwarf their crews and will use hydraulic power supplied by engines to trim their enormous sails and move water ballast from one hull to another.
USA is believed to have sailed at three times the speed of the wind while undergoing sea trials in San Diego last year. The Americans added a radical wing sail that towers 190 feet above the deck and makes the craft accelerate and maneuver better than with a traditional soft-sail rigging.
The addition of the wing sail led the Swiss to file a motion contending that USA no longer meets the specifications the Americans included in their challenge certificate filed in July 2007.
So either way, the court fight likely will continue after the sailing ends.
Conner and Fay tangled in court both before and after the American sailed his catamaran to a two-race sweep of the Kiwi's big monohull in September 1988. Six months later, Conner's victory was overturned by the New York State Supreme Court. The following September, the New York State Supreme Court's Appellate Division reversed the lower court's decision and awarded the silver trophy back to the San Diego Yacht Club, which Conner represented. The spat reached New York's Court of Appeals, which in April 1990 decided that Conner's victory stood.
Conner lost the America's Cup in 1995 to New Zealander Russell Coutts, who has been the CEO and skipper of BMW Oracle Racing since July 2007. Coutts successfully defended the Cup with Team New Zealand in 2000 before jumping ship to Alinghi in 2003 and beating his native country.
Coutts had a falling out with Bertarelli and was fired in 2004. He sat out the 2007 America's Cup and was hired by Ellison in July 2007, a move that perhaps added a layer of bitterness to the legal fight.