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Sarah Ballard
December 07, 1987
A dramatic ruling could spawn America's Cup boats with golden-age grandeur
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December 07, 1987

Sailing Back To The Future

A dramatic ruling could spawn America's Cup boats with golden-age grandeur

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That Quaint 19th-century sporting ritual known as the America's Cup may suddenly have been swept into the 21st century. Following a 19-page ruling by Justice Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick of New York State Supreme Court last week, the boats that would be permitted to sail for the next America's Cup would make the 1987 models look like just that—models. The decision in favor of a challenge from New Zealand opens the way for match racing on a scale not seen in the America's Cup in 50 years, not since the grand era of the J boats, with their acres of billowing sail and their crews of 40 men, came to an end in the late 1930s. But should such a Cup series actually come to pass, it would be anything but a throwback to the past, because the technology would be space-age and the spectacle could rival anything in modern sport.

The question before the court was whether the San Diego Yacht Club (SDYC), the current holder, or trustee, of the Cup, was required, under the terms of the America's Cup Deed of Gift, to accept the challenge of New Zealand's Michael Fay, 38, an investment banker in Auckland. Fay was the principal money man behind Kiwi Magic, the fiberglass Cinderella boat of the 1987 Cup in Australia.

Fay's latest challenge, presented to the commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club on July 17, five months after the end of the '87 Cup series, startled the tight little world of 12-meter racers by proposing to do away with 12-meter yachts in America's Cup competition.

Fay's bid was made on behalf of the Mercury Bay Boating Club of Whitianga, on the Coromandel Peninsula northeast of Auckland, an organization whose membership has been described as "a ragtag group of 60 weekend boaties" and whose files are kept in a decrepit secondhand car. The challenge specified a two-out-of-three race series to be sailed next June and announced that New Zealand's entry would measure 90 feet at the waterline. In overall length at deck level, that translates to something between 110 and 130 feet. Speculation in New Zealand has it that the mast of Fay's new boat will be too high—perhaps as much as 160 feet—to pass under the Auckland Harbor Bridge and that the crew will number between 30 and 40. By contrast, a 12-meter yacht, the class used in America's Cup competition since 1958, is approximately 65 feet long, stem to stern, has a 90-foot mast and carries a crew of 11.

San Diego's initial response to Fay's challenge was to ignore it and to proceed with an announcement in September that the next America's Cup defense would be in San Diego in 1991 in 12-meters. Fay said a strict reading of the deed of gift, the document that has governed the terms of the competition for 100 years, supported his challenge. San Diego asked the court to declare Fay's challenge invalid and to alter the deed to conform with recent practice. Since the early 1960s the practice has been for the holder of the Cup, first the New York Yacht Club and, after '83, the Royal Perth Yacht Club, to announce the boat, the time and the place for the next defense before the conclusion of the current competition or immediately afterward. Since 1970, the first year the defender accepted more than one challenge, all challenges have been treated as if they had arrived simultaneously. Until now the challengers, by choosing not to exercise their right to disagree, have consented to the conditions set by the defender.

Last week the court came down on the side of New Zealand. (The case was in New York because the deed had been established there in 1887 by George Schuyler, the last surviving owner of the yacht America.) San Diego had failed, wrote the judge, "to justify making truly radical and fundamental changes in the deed...."

Now the fun begins. Although the defender has lost the first battle, the war is barely under way, and the SDYC isn't without options. The deed of gift requires the challenger to specify the waterline length of the boat it proposes to challenge with and allows it to choose the date of the match. When the parties can't agree on the conditions of the match, the defender must be given at least 10 months notice to meet the challenge at a site of the defender's choosing. Even if the SDYC should decide not to appeal (the club had scheduled a news conference for Dec. 2 at which it would presumably announce its intentions) and to accept the challenge on Fay's terms, it might still try to thwart Fay's intentions. It could change the venue of the races, possibly to Hawaii, where high winds could put Fay's so-called supermaxi, which was designed for San Diego's light winds, at a disadvantage, or it could meet the challenge of New Zealand's big single-hull design with an equally large multihull boat—a catamaran or trimaran. Existing racing catamarans that measure 80 feet achieve speeds of 22 to 24 knots, a good 10 knots faster than monohulls of the same length. Roger Marshall, a naval architect in Jamestown, R.I., estimates that a catamaran with a 90-foot waterline might go as fast as 35 to 40 knots—so fast, he says, it would never need to set a spinnaker. Whether these design variations would be legal in America's Cup competition, however, might require further judicial interpretation.

Although the deed says that San Diego must deal with challenges in the order they are received (and San Diego now claims, belatedly, that a British and an Australian challenge actually preceded Fay's), Fay has said he is willing to compete with would-be challengers from other nations in an elimination series before the Cup races. Dennis Conner, the victorious U.S. skipper of 1987, who received word of the decision while in Australia on business, is skeptical, to put it mildly. "It will be a race between America and New Zealand with the rest of the world shut out," said Conner. "I don't believe Michael Fay wants an international series, anyway. He doesn't want competition. That's why he's done this. He wants to win the Cup any way he can."

"If we went anywhere else [besides San Diego], it would be with the idea of guaranteeing an America's Cup for San Diego in 1991," says Malin Burnham, CEO of Sail America, the organization managing the defense. "If we have to race Fay in 1988, we want to be sure we can put his challenge away with little trouble. We don't want to do anything to risk San Diego losing the 1991 series."

In a sense, last week's decision was a case of Conner's chickens, hatched in Australia a year ago, coming home to roost. It was Conner, abetted by Burnham and the Sail America syndicate, who questioned the legality of Kiwi Magic's fiberglass hull, and Conner himself who said, before the world yachting press, "Why would you [build a fiberglass boat] unless you wanted to cheat?" Conner won the Cup, but with that one rhetorical question he also won the undying enmity of Fay and a lot of other New Zealanders.

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