Yachting's biggest show gets under sail in San Francisco tomorrow. DUNCAN JOHNSTONE puts some perspective on an event that has got too big for its own good.
American billionaire Larry Ellison's grand vision for the America's Cup has turned into a nightmare.
Ellison wanted the regatta to be a made-for-TV spectacular set in San Francisco. But the script could have been written further down the California coast in Hollywood, such has been the incident-packed leadup to tomorrow's premiere.
Acts of death and destruction on the water, claims of dithering and deception in the boardroom, and even the usual touch of espionage have dominated the headlines, with plenty more sub-plots sure to unfold before the winning skipper lifts sport's oldest trophy, sometime in September.
This 34th edition of the famous regatta has done nothing to squash the theory that the America's Cup is just a toy for rich boys.
Ellison's biggest problem is that hardly anyone has turned up to play with him because he has pushed the boundaries too far.
There was true worth in his dream to have around 16 to 20 syndicates sailing on the spectacular bay, contesting a course set hard against the city's shoreline.
There was also sense in speeding things up by introducing multihulls, whose power means races of around an hour, rather than the snail-like processions of the past, where not even digital animation could do much to liven up the monohull monotony.
But, in typical fashion for someone of his status, Ellison forgot that not everyone lives by his means - or ways.
The American attitude to supersize everything has resulted in boats that are too big and too fast, have been labelled too dangerous, and are most certainly too expensive, with a budget of around $100m required to be remotely competitive.
And so Ellison scared off most of his wealthy counterparts.
Two and a half challengers will contest the Louis Vuitton Cup over the next two months to see who will race Ellison's Oracle outfit for the Auld Mug, in a best-of-17 series starting on September 8.
The embarrassing reality is that, over the first four weeks, Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa will face each other just five times, and then race the course solo a further five times each to earn the points against the sidelined Artemis Racing, which is busily trying to get its second yacht up and running.
So, despite all the testing and the pre-race posturing, the teams can't wait to get this thing done with and move on to something more sensible - and certainly more affordable.
Without a sail raised in anger everyone involved has deemed this regatta outrageous and changes will be made for the next edition.
Swedish syndicate Artemis certainly won't be going through more of the same after the trauma of Andrew Simpson's death during a training exercise in May.
That tragedy cast a huge shadow over this event and resulted in sweeping changes under the safety rules, some of which have gone too far for the liking of Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa, who suspect the last-minute alterations in boat design have been done to benefit an under-performing Oracle.
That the Kiwis and Italians are even at the event is something of a miracle.
Not even the fashion millions of Prada could initially get Luna Rossa afloat. It had to cling to the technical coat tails of the Kiwis to belatedly join the action through a design-sharing agreement to cut costs.
And Team New Zealand wouldn't be involved at all if it wasn't for Government backing it to the tune of a whopping $36m and Grant Dalton's almost single-minded desire to keep afloat the Kiwi dream, envisaged by Sir Michael Fay, and carried out by Sir Peter Blake before it literally sank in 2003.
If Dalton succeeds in winning this time - and on training form the Kiwis must be favoured to ultimately race Oracle for the cup - he has promised realistic budgets, realistic boats, and a nationality clause that will stop the maritime mercenaries currently dominating crews.
But the biggest concession has come from Oracle's chief executive Sir Russell Coutts, the New Zealand legend who arrived in America via cup success with Switzerland.
Blinded by the glare coming off his boss's vision, Coutts has belatedly seen the light.
Coutts has gone on record to admit that future cups would indeed need smaller boats and lower costs.
"That's pretty much unanimous. Everyone sees that now," Coutts said, in a statement that will be of no comfort to the nine other yacht clubs who expressed interest in challenging this time, but never found the fortunes required to front.
But right now, the show must go on, despite the extravagancies, and the scorn, which has enveloped the event like the famous San Francisco fog. It will surely clear once the business end of racing starts with the Louis Vuitton Cup final and then the America's Cup match. That's because these over-powered beasts will be truly spectacular going head-to-head. The racing will literally be on a knife edge as they foil for victory, absolute disaster only the smallest of mistakes away.
But these boast will just as quickly turn into dinosaurs, giants that were ultimately too big for their own survival.
So enjoy this for what it is, because it won't happen again.
- Sunday Star Times
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