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An Open Letter to Ernesto Bertarelli

by Bob Fisher on 10 Dec 2007
Bob Fisher, first reported on the America’s Cup since 1967 and is the author of An Absorbing Interest - the definitive America’s Cup work. Bob Fisher
An Open Letter to Ernesto Bertarelli, President of Alinghi

8th December 2007

Dear Ernesto,

I thank you for your open letter and for the 90 minutes of your valuable time that you granted for an interview.

At the Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award dinner you took me to task for my criticism of your team’s behaviour towards the 33rd America’s Cup. I demurred, saying that if I were mistaken, it was due to a lack of communication from your team’s leaders. That now is not the case.

While I notice that the passing of two weeks has not in any way altered your determination to run the 33rd America’s Cup in a manner that would make the competition a far different event to all the 32 that had preceded it, and that you have attempted to make your intentions more widely known, I cannot agree that what you are proposing to do is for the benefit of the America’s Cup other than turning it into a revenue source for Alinghi and ACM.

The America’s Cup is not all about money. While huge sums are spent on the teams, there has never been the need for the event to support the teams financially. That is entirely up to those who form the teams that take part in this sporting event. And let us remember that it was the wealthier teams who benefited most from the distribution of the surplus, not those that could best benefit from a boost to their resources.

You propose to change the very dynamic of the event in a way that can only reduce it to the mediocrity of many other regattas. At present, it stands alone, clearly head and shoulders above every other regatta because of the very nature of the event. The cup was given to the New York Yacht Club by the owners of the schooner America, who wished to perpetuate the success they had achieved in defeating an old enemy and establishing the United States as a world leader in naval architecture.

Those owners foresaw it as an iconic representation of superiority, but wanted to challenge the world at large to prove this continuously. Above all, they proposed that it should be a challenge cup, held by the winner of the last event against all-comers. That intent is clearly stated in the Deed of Gift, throughout all three versions, culminating with that of 1887 that the last surviving owner, George Schuyler, wrote shortly before his death.

That deed, totalling 1,100 words, or 15 column inches in Harper’s Weekly in 1895, is extremely clear in the intention of the donor who sought challenges from foreign clubs, based on the sea, to determine the faster boat in a match. The defender, therefore, would meet the challenger in a series of races whose structure would be by mutual consent and the winner would hold the cup until defeated by another challenger. Schuyler, like his fellow owners of the schooner America, did not propose any ordinary regatta, but a contest that would be outstanding. And that is what it has been.

Now, you seek to change the entire format and here I must offer a word of warning. Changing sporting events dramatically has not been shown to be successful in the past and one should always consider the wisdom of Sir Winston Churchill who advised a study of history in order to avoid making the same mistakes again. One very apposite example of a major change in a sailing event leading to its demise was the Admiral’s Cup where the removal of the Fastnet Race from its programme proved terminal for the event. Be warned.

You claim to have created your team to share the passion of sailing and that this has proved successful for your team, which triumphantly defended the trophy in the closest match ever. That Emirates Team New Zealand pushed Alinghi so hard was a massive contribution to the success of the event. That there was never more than 35 seconds separating the boats at the finish was an added bonus.

Since that day when just one second separated Alinghi from the challenger in the seventh race there has been instability and I would suggest that this is of your making. Had you more carefully read the Deed of Gift and bothered to interpret its meaning, you could have chosen any properly qualified yacht club who would follow your intentions and there would not have been an opportunity for anyone to be upset to the point of taking the matter to the only arbiter available, the New York State Supreme Court.

As it was, the club from which you received a 'hip-pocket' challenge, and who allowed you to issue a draconian Protocol that shows no evidence of mutual consent, has proved to be invalid and five months have been lost. Is this what you mean by 'empower the organisers to implement further innovations without unnecessary disruptions'? You state that the court ruling shows: 'the Achilles heel of the event.' I argue that it shows the strength of the Deed of Gift to protect all concerned from potential bias.

Nobody in their right minds would allow ACM, a body created as an offshoot of Alinghi, rightfully to nominate the International Jury and the Board of Arbitration. This is a return to the pre-1980 days when the New York Yacht Club provided the Protest Committee; a state of affairs that led Sir Frank Packer to declare that arguing with the New York Yacht Club over the America’s Cup is like 'complaining to your mother-in-law about your wife.' Those bodies have to be independent of the defender and the challenger for the event to have veracity. Yet, in the next breath you are complaining that. '…the Deed does not actively promote parity for the teams…'

Your stated aim is to 'make the event more relevant to today’s sporting landscape.' One has to ask why? Within hours of the completion of the 32nd America’s Cup, major sponsor, Louis Vuitton, who has supported the Cup for a quarter of a century, and who contributed €45.2 million on this occasion, announced that it was leaving because the event had lost its tradition and elegance. Was that good for the event? The tradition of the America’s Cup is what makes it special.

You go as far as to raising the question as to whether the defender should be automatically qualified for the final match – that is what makes the America’s Cup special and without that there is no mystique or elegance. The event would be bland – just another regatta.

I can agree that the schedule of venues be announced in advance, but as each event is a separate entity, there is no reason to formalise the content of the regulations; these are a matter of mutual consent between the challengers and defender and should be available for alteration. The governance of the Cup could well be managed by the past and present trustees – that is the manner in which it is, arguably, currently controlled, but not by one team alone.

Finally, you indicate that unless you achieve your desired revision of the governing documents, you will have to accept the one-on-one challenge of the Golden Gate Yacht Club. Perhaps that would be the best way out of the current impasse. While it is not what the aficionados of the event would wish, it would clear the air and only be regarded as a minor hiccup in the Cup’s colourful history.

With kindest regards,

Bob

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