Thursday, October 11, 2007

Uh Oh I Did it Again

Hemingway said to never trust a man whose story hangs together too well, and I thought that might help me understand Ernesto Bertarelli, because his story doesn't hang together for me, eloquent though he is in the telling.

More than once now I've heard Mr. Bertarelli explain that the defender needs to sail in the challenger trials because the protocol does not allow a boat of the proposed 90-foot class to line up and speed test against another 90-footer and therefore, lacking racing experience, a defender would have no speed comparisons at all and would be a sitting duck. But as to how a defender, guaranteed a pass to the Cup, could mix with a challenger fleet without biasing the outcome—that I don't get. And if the defender influences, or could influence, the challenger selection, how do we consider that to make a challenger?

[What times we are living, eh? With the Cup in its courtroom conniptions and the Mini fleet at sea in the Transat 6.50 and developments there by the hour, and the dramas of the U.S. Olympic Trials coming full-flower? And the Railey family drama, what of that, where it is possible that Zach could qualify in the Finn while once-dominant Paige could lose out to the surging, well-timed peak of Anna Tunnicliffe. Or not. This is one amazing week in the world of SAIL.]

Back to Topic A.

All the Cup sailors I know are ready to move to a new class, but more than that they want to see the Cup cranking along. And for the sake of the public, for the sake of growing awareness—even for 99.9 percent of the sailors who actually understand what's going on—the type of boat is irrelevant. All sailboats are slow.

More than one of the players in this drama—including challengers under the July 2007 protocol—now find themselves current-bound between a rock and a hard place.

By Ernesto's account, the 90-foot switch would not actually cut costs, but by eliminating two boat testing might succeed in holding costs at about the present level. The boats would come out marginally faster upwind, much faster downwind, and they would be more satisfying to sail. By my account—which does not dispute any of that—the public couldn't care less about a boat that goes downwind faster, and why get into a dither because other types are more advanced. We went through years of that chatter with the Twelves, and yes it was time to change, but the "lead-bottomed money gobblers" did nothing to diminish the luster of the Cup. (And when we made the WIND movie, the only thing that mattered to the cameras was the way those puppies punched waves and drove heaps of water and spray down the deck.)

Meanwhile the defender professes to be pursuing a goal of putting the America's Cup (eventually) on a solid business footing while telling us that, even taking the lion's share of 60+ million Euro profits from AC 32, he remains 30 million Euros in the hole. (No, he did not specify whether that included the outcomes of real estate dealings, if any, in Valencia, and no, I did not ask.)

Here is Bertarelli:

"Organizing a successful America's Cup is a complex thing, but I can assure you that our intent was to allow people to use the momentum of the 32nd Cup to maintain their sailors, maintain their sponsors, and not have to do the same thing over and over again but instead get excited by a J class-like boat.

"The two year time frame is the only way you can you reduce costs, and the biggest promoter of a two-year time frame was Larry Ellison. It becomes even more relevant, if you introduce a new class, because the longer you have for design, the more money will be spent. To introduce a new class and allow it to be done over four years with a two-boat campaign is just unacceptable.

"I've been in the biotech industry and I know where the money goes. It doesn't go into the marketing of the products; the selling; it goes into research and development. If you give a scientist or researcher 15 years to come up with a product, he will use fifteen and a half years. You need to put pressure on the process. If a boat is designed in 15 months, sure, it's not going to be as fast as a boat designed in 52 months, but it's still going to be a boat; you're still going to go sailing, and if everybody has the same amount of time you're going to be okay. Now, if you think that we are dishonest, or that we're trying to gain an unfair advantage, we are happy to have a discovery of what these designers have done over the past year. And I'll tell you that what they have done is try to win the 32nd America's Cup, which is not a small task, and then they've tried to go on vacation for a few weeks, and then what they've tried to do is come up with a rule that is simple enough so that we can have close racing very quickly, in a boat that will make sense.

"It's straightforward. The work we've done is to answer the question, can a 90-footer plane downwind, because if the answer is no, then why bother?"

© Abner Kingman/St. Francis Yacht Club

Seen above: Alinghi helmsman Ed Baird and Ernesto Bertarelli.

I accumulated about six hours of Bertarelli Time during the defender's recent PR push in the USA, and I expected to find him likeable, and I did. He pitched his case on West 44th Street to the New York Yacht Club, and he pitched his case on the shoreline of San Francisco Bay to the St. Francis Yacht Club. Meanwhile, he gave a lot of press interviews, and those two institutions presumably provided the setting he desired. On his West Coast stop I listened to the defender's end of several telephone interviews; I also listened to him speak to audiences he considered select and semi-select.

Bertarelli noted that he had been criticized in 2003 for not going to a new boat after winning in New Zealand; so this is a long-running question. He (or his people) has/have also said since winning again in Valencia in July that the decision to change boats was not made until the very end. But Alinghi's chief designer, Rolf Vrolijk, was quoted in the June issue of Seahorse (minimum lead time 45 days): "The AC rule ends here."

And then, why would you make a snap decision about something that matters so much to so many?

You see, this stuff just doesn't hang together for me, nor does his contention that, "The changes to the protocol were very, very small."

We see huge amounts of time and money devoted now to justifying the defender's choices, however and whenever they were made. I don't know what it takes to fly a G5 from Europe to the USA, with stops in New York and San Francisco and accommodations for Ernesto Bertarelli and Ed Baird and the entourage and of course two bodyguards for "the old lady," the America's Cup. I don't know how Mr. Bertarelli bills his time. I do know that to every question put by me, he had an answer that fit his logic, and the answer felt persuasive while he was going at it, and then—

An America's Cup match takes a defender and a challenger. A strong defender and a strong challenger, if you're talking a strong match. Get away from that model and it's not the America's Cup and we don't have to resurrect George Schuyler to tell us so. Meanwhile, we've gone a long way down the road of creative complications, as in trying to fit the defender into a challenger eliminations series. I find Mr. Bertarelli's reasoning sensible to a point, the point at which the trail leads over a cliff.

I notice now that things are not going as well as I thought they would be, back when guys like me were enthusiastically writing about the most exciting Cup competition since 1983. The defender is in a box. Either he prevails in court or he will have to swallow his pride and deal with his former friend, Larry Ellison, either through the terms of the counter-challenge and Deed of Gift or through a renegotiation of the protocol (the stated aim of the BMW Oracle Racing lawsuit). The defender is already on record that negotiating with BMW Oracle is a pain in the nethers. (I suspect Tom Ehman takes that as a compliment.)

It's not a situation in which the path of the statesman is easy.

Meanwhile, like most of my friends, I'm following Cory Friedman's legal analysis at Scuttlebutt, but since I don't have a legal mind, myself, I keep trying to make sense of the scene in my own little way. This, I'm afraid, is just another record of failure—Kimball