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America's Cup: Three new Challengers in the Waiting Room for Auckland

by Richard Gladwell, 14 Oct 2018 16:36 PDT 15 October 2018
Luna Rossa lanuch their spectacular AC72 in Auckland in 2013 © Richard Gladwell

In Auckland on a flying visit last week, French-born Laurent Esquier's Kiwi connections go back to the halcyon days of KZ-7, and the 1987 America’s Cup in Fremantle.

Now CEO of the Challenger of Record for the 36th America's Cup, Esquier is picking up where he left off with Grant Dalton and Kevin Shoebridge who now head up Emirates Team New Zealand.

Both were under the tutelage of the uncompromising French coach during the long training days in the Indian Ocean as they wrestled with the nuances of 12 metres sailing and the Fremantle Doctor.

After Michael Fay decided to winter over the Fremantle following the 1985 12 Metre World Championship, Esquier’s role as co-coach, in conjunction with Roy Dickson, was to bring the rookie team, up to speed for the Louis Vuitton Cup.

“Le General” was one of the more polite nicknames the uncompromising Esquier earned that winter. They did the job with KZ-7 going through the Challenger Selection Series winning 37 races and losing only one, before being defeated in the Final by Dennis Conner in Stars and Stripes, who in turn went on to rout the Australian Defender and return the Cup to the USA.

“I started with Dalts a long time ago with [Sir Michael] Fay”, recalls Esquier. “The guy has done an unbelievable job. He’s just done an amazing job,” he repeats for added emphasis. For this event now - he is the best guy you could want. Of that, there is absolutely no doubt.”

Since the close of the regular entry period on June 30, there has been plenty of conjecture over the number of Challengers.

While there are just three announced Challengers entered the 2021 America's Cup which is well shy of the 13 Challengers and four Defence candidates of Fremantle.

"There are at least three [new] teams which are knocking in the door," counters Esquier.

"But first they have to knock on the Trustee's (RNZYS) door. We know there is strong interest registered by at least three teams. What that is going to translate into - I don't know. But the interest is there. However, the deadline is getting pretty close, too. Soon we will see one way or the other."

In response to a question as to whether the new teams are “Super Teams” or are of the lower budget commercially funded variety, similar to Emirates Team New Zealand, Esquier says that he understands it is a mix.

"But even if they are smaller teams, they will be solid teams - just because of the hefty Entry fees and Performance Bond,” he says.

"The commitment to the America’s Cup World Series is very substantial, and then there is also the nationality rule. So, teams are entering for the right reasons. Put it that way."

A quick skim through the opening pages of the Protocol governing the 36th America's Cup presented by Prada makes it apparent that the Auckland event is not one for those with short arms and deep pockets.

For a late-entering team, the Entry Fees are USD$3million in total, plus a USD$1million Performance Bond. In addition, there is a USD$300,000 entry fee for each America's Cup World Series event, of which there are two in 2019 and three in 2020. That is a hefty total of USD$5.5million including refundable Performance Bond. For the 1995 campaign, Sir Peter Blake ponied up with USD$75,000 of his personal funds to cover the entry fee. The flood of wannabes who failed to materialise as Cup Challengers in the Ellison era has resulted in the financial bar being lifted a lot higher for the 2021 America’s Cup.

With the willingness of Emirates Team New Zealand to both supply a design package, and with the assent of the Challenger of Record the November 30 late entry deadline could be extended further.

Of the three entries still waiting in the wings, Esquier says: "They have all read the Protocol. They have all talked back and forth. It is not a decision you make lightly.

"Making an America's Cup Entry is a big decision and a massive undertaking in terms of technology, communication for the yacht club and backers. They have to be well thought out decisions, which takes time to endorse. No one has entered conditionally. But they have to do their paperwork, get it signed off, then put their money down. And away you go."

The teams are required to sail their AC75s in the lead-up America's Cup World Series.

"We will have the first World Series in Fall next year, as per the Protocol. Both events in 2019 will be in Italy. For 2020, the circuit is not defined, but we are investigating locations, in Asia, in the Americas and Europe.

"We will have a minimum of three ACWS events in 2020. We are not sure where in Asia, but we will try and hit the East and West Coast of USA and Asia, and eventually get back to New Zealand between October and November of 2020."

"The America’s Cup World Series will be fleet racing, as it is quicker to run a fleet racing series than match racing," he adds.

Part of the rationale for the World Series events and their practice sessions is to get the crew up to speed as quickly as possible with the AC75s.

"The AC75s are so different from the AC50. There is so much unknown, I am not saying fear - but unknown in terms of the learning curve - not only foiling but tacking and gybing and so on.

"I think the teams are keen to spend as much time on the water as possible and as much time seeing what the other guys are doing - including the Defender. The Defender is part of the World Series, and they need to see what is happening. So, you will find there is a lot of interest in racing the boats against each other."

A life in the Cup

With 11 America's Cup campaigns in his logbook, Esquier sailed his first Challenger Selection Series for the America's Cup with Baron Bich in 1974 at the age of 20.

"Before that, I was just a club sailor and trying to be a student at the same time. I did my military service in the French navy. When you hit 18-21 years of age, you had to give one year to the military. Some of Baron Bich's crew came directly from the sports battalions of the navy.

“I carried a gun for a couple of months, and then I was back in the 12 Metres and never looked back.”

Esquier was with the reclusive Bich in the 1974, 1977, and 1980 French campaigns, before switching to Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes in 1983, because of the New York Yacht Club's strict nationality rules he was only allowed to sail on the trial-horse.

For his fifth America's Cup campaign Esquier joined Challenge France in Fremantle - skippered by Yves Pajot and his Marseille-based team.

"We set up camp next door to the Kiwis and ran out of money after a month and a half! We had two boats and no cash! It was a bit of a disaster," he recalls.

"One of the Kiwis knocked on the door and asked what we were doing. They wanted to use our space, so they cut a door through into the sail loft. I joined Michael's team as a coach and helped with the coaching of the two crews."

After Fremantle, he stayed on with Michael Fay for the Big Boat campaign in 1988. Then he switched to Italy's Il Moro de Venezia in 1992, which defeated the radical tandem keeled NZL-20 for the right to Challenge. Esquier was back with the Kiwis in 1995 as part of the Tag Heuer challenge in 1995 with Chris Dickson, making the Semi-Finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup.

In Auckland, Esquier coached the Prada sponsored Luna Rossa in 2000. The Italian team warded off ten other Challengers in the Louis Vuitton before being beaten 5-0 by Team New Zealand in their first defence. He went again with Luna Rossa Challenge in 2003, before switching to BMW Oracle in 2007 in Valencia finishing third in the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Then came a switch to event management from 2007 to 2010, when he managed the various Louis Vuitton Trophy series sailed in supplied IACC yachts while Oracle and Alinghi slugged it out in the New York Supreme Court, before contesting a Court ordered Deed of Gift match sailed in massive 120ft multihulls.

After a stint with the Artemis Racing, Esquier switched back to event management for the 34th America’s Cup in San Francisco.

"Between then and now I was involved in high rise construction – project managing a 20 storey building in the US before I started this job in November of 2017,” he explains.

"I live in Milan for work. I have a home in Jamestown, next to Newport, RI. We still try and keep a family life."

The combination of sailing, coaching, event management and construction experience, plus 40 years of acquiring America's contacts and networks make Esquier well placed to head up the Challenger of Record organisation. Its responsibilities include the organisation of all preliminary events of the 36th America’s Cup presented by Prada being the America’s Cup Match and also the America’s Cup World Series, Christmas Race and the Challenger Selection Series for the Prada Cup.

Brothers in Arms

One of the young Kiwi sailors in that campaign was Grant Dalton, then a crew member on the trial boat, now CEO of Emirates Team New Zealand and also of America’s Cup Events (ACE), the body responsible for organising the America’s Cup Match in Auckland.

While there is historical sailing camaraderie, the two CEOs are now working together in the roles as ACE and COR, while the respective sailing teams will compete on the water.

“First and foremost we have to create a level playing field for a fair regatta, so we can select the best Challenger to go after the Defender”, explains Esquier. “In parallel, we want to create a very friendly and accessible event.”

One of the world's leading fashion houses, Prada is the title sponsor for the 36th America's Cup, as well as of Luna Rossa Challenge, representing the Circolo della Vela Sicilia yacht club which is the Challenger of Record.

The 36th edition of the Cup marks the second time that CVS has found itself as Challenger of Record. In 2015, the Italians took on the role after Team Australia pulled out of the 35th America’s Cup. In a magnanimous gesture, Luna Rossa signed away their right of approval on any Protocol changes deferring instead to a Challenger democratic decision.

Eight months later their generosity was rewarded by having the Challenger Committee go rogue and accept a Defender brokered deal that offered to switch to a smaller boat nine months after entries had closed. A bonus from that 3-2 vote also cut Auckland out of hosting the America's Cup Qualifiers, allowing the teams to stay in Bermuda, and as a consequence unintended or otherwise, came within hours of financially taking out the eventual America's Cup winner.

Several times over the past 20 years, Luna Rossa and their Patron Patrizio Bertelli, who is also CEO of the Prada Group, have made a principled stand on how the America's Cup event should be organised - consistent with the written word and donor intent of the 19th century Deed of Gift that governs the conduct of America's Cup. Few can expound those beliefs as succinctly as Patrizio Bertelli. He is the only Italian inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame.

"This time it is a different setup, and the Protocol is very specific", Esquier explains keen not see a repeat of the events of March 31, 2015, the America's Cup's Day of Ignominy.

"Everything which involves the regatta itself - on the water or the competition itself is between the Challenger of Record, which is not a Challenger Committee, and the Defender.

"The Race Officials, the Umpires, the Measurers the Arbitration Panel - all those bodies which are governing and ensuring the fairness of the Regatta are endorsed by both the Challenger of Record and Defender."

"We don't have a Challenger Committee any more with a majority vote. We try and keep everything as fair as possible."

"Fair" is not a word normally associated with the America's Cup, but it seems the teams have finally tired of the one-upmanship that has been a feature of the America's Cup since the inception of the event.

"It is a different mindset with this Cup," explains Esquier.

"We do not have an ACEA/ACRM type management division as they had in Bermuda and San Francisco, but at the end of the day, we are still a Challenger of Record competing against the Defender.

"Our job as Challengers is still to take the Cup away from the Defender."

"What I am saying is that we want to make this a proper event, at the right level and fair, and that we have digital tiebacks to the history and tradition of the event.”

With Prada's involvement as presenting sponsor, the America's Cup village and environs will bring haute couture to the most prestigious event in sailing.

"The Luna Rossa eleganza is going to be extended to the full venue in terms of look and feel", explains Esquier. "This includes the architecture, the shape and style and type of hospitality, the media centre, through to the merchandising.

"On the water, we will also have a very strong Prada and Italian/European presence. We will be targeting an audience of millennials and aiming to grow the America's Cup fan base by attracting younger fans. The fans will love it."

Many will remember the way the Auckland and New Zealand public embraced and celebrated the Italian influence in the 2000 America's Cup when Luna Rossa was the hands-down Kiwi fan favourite in the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Skipper Francesco de Angelis was voted second in a housewives' poll to find New Zealand's sexiest man. Later "el Duce", as he was known, was recognised with a rare award for a foreigner in the New Zealand Honours list of that year.

In Part 2 we hear how the America's Cup Village will look and feel; how the CoR sees the new SailGP fitting in and whether it is ambush marketing; what the media arrangements will be and how fans will be able to view the Cups.

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