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Big Boats, Bigger Egos In 33rd America's Cup

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BMW Oracle Racing owner Larry Ellison is seen during a sail on his BOR 90 boat near Valencia, Spain, Feb. 7. (AP)
BMW Oracle Racing owner Larry Ellison is seen during a sail on his BOR 90 boat near Valencia, Spain, Feb. 7. (AP)

The promotional video for the 33rd America’s Cup makes it all look so genteel. A joyful Ernesto Bertarelli hoists the cup overhead and sprays champagne into a crowd, the camera pans over a helicopter flying Alinghi’s 90-foot catamaran over the Swiss Alps, and the whole thing ends with the phrase: “In Valencia, of course.”

But the 33rd America’s Cup wasn’t supposed to be held in the city of Valencia, Spain. Nearly every detail of this competition — from the location, to the time of year, to whether the boats were to be measured with or without their rudders — has been the subject of a ruling by the New York State Supreme Court.

Paco LaTorre, communications director for the America’s Cup, had just 10 days after the most recent court ruling to make final preparations for the event. “At one stage there were two teams, then we had 19 teams, then we went back to two teams,” Paco explained. “People need to plan, and that’s something we’ve not been able to do.”

Alinghi owner Ernesto Bertarelli, right, waves from the Alinghi 5 boat as it's towed into Valencia's port, Feb. 8. (AP)
Alinghi owner Ernesto Bertarelli, right, waves from the Alinghi 5 boat as it's towed into Valencia's port, Feb. 8. (AP)

Ready or not, on Monday, weather willing, two enormous multi-hulled sailboats will duel in the waters off Valencia. Each boat is about as tall as a 17-story building and as wide as a baseball diamond, which makes them tiny in comparison to the egos of the two men who built them.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Oracle founder Larry Ellison and Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli have alienated fans while being locked in a legal battle over every tiny detail of the 33rd America’s Cup.

Normally, the America’s Cup is a months-long affair which starts with challengers vying for the right to race the defender in a string of races called the Louis Vuitton Cup. But this time around, the court mandated that competitors skip straight to the main event, a best of three "Deed of Gift" match. It’s as if the NFL were to hold the Super Bowl without bothering with a regular season.

BMW Oracle's BOR 90 boat sails in Valencia, Feb. 7. (AP)
BMW Oracle's BOR 90 boat sails in Valencia, Feb. 7. (AP)

It’s not what Alinghi, the defender and organizer of the America’s Cup, had envisioned, according to Alinghi helmsman Ed Baird. “You know I think there is just a general frustration that this whole thing turned into such a fiasco,” Baird said. “We did have a nice bunch of teams that were ready to go race in the next America’s Cup. And one team didn’t agree with the rest of the group.”

That team was Larry Ellison’s BMW/Oracle. The team’s spokesperson, Tom Ehman, said it was Ernesto Bertarelli’s Alinghi which was trying to hijack the Cup. “You can’t have one team go out and try to manipulate the rules for themselves,” Ehman explained. “It’s just not fair. It’s not correct.”

Each team has reportedly spent more than $200 million on this campaign, the majority on legal fees. If this is starting to sound like two billionaire toddlers squabbling over a favorite toy, San Francisco waterfront columnist Paul Oliva said that’s not far from how it all began.

“This is one of the last ways that billionaires can legally do a duel,” Oliva said. “The rules around this were put together in the 19th century when dueling was still common, and that’s what we’re going to see next week with machines we’ve never seen go head to head before.”

Those machines really are the silver lining here. The "Deed of Gift" places far fewer restrictions on the size and configuration of the boats, meaning this contest will be between two vessels which are bigger, faster and more technologically advanced than anything that’s been seen before. They can sail at up to three times the speed of the wind, which is faster than most of the motorized spectator boats that will try to follow the races.

That, Oliva said, has sailing fans ready to forgive the past two years of legal drama and eager to watch the races starting on Monday.

Since the America’s Cup began in 1851, the defender has been charged with planning and setting the rules for the next competition. But Paul Cayard, a veteran of five America’s Cups, is among a growing number of sailors who believe it’s time for that tradition to come to an end.

Letting the defender hold all the cards isn’t a professional way to run a sporting event, Cayard said. He’d like to see the America’s Cup run like the NFL, the World Cup and every other major international sporting event, with an independent body setting rules and planning competitions.

But change won’t come easy, Cayard said, because the holder of the cup will have to willingly agree to give up some of the perks of winning sport’s oldest trophy. “Finding someone who’s big enough to step aside for the betterment of the event and the sport,” Cayard said. “So far no one’s been able to do that.”

Larry Ellison has stated publicly that if he wins the cup next week, he is willing to step aside in favor of an independent administrator. And even if he loses, it’s not over yet.

The New York State Supreme Court could still throw out the results of the 33rd America’s Cup after hearing arguments about the legality of Alinghi’s sails on Feb. 25.

This program aired on February 8, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Karen Given Twitter Executive Producer, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.

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