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America's Cup shake out inevitable after cancellations and shutdowns

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World.com/nz 25 Mar 03:27 PDT 25 March 2020
Will Emirates Team NZ's Te Kaahu prove to be a game breaker for the Defender? - © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com

The second event ACWS Portsmouth was cancelled Tuesday (NZT) by organisers, citing unacceptable health risks to fans and teams given the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK.

That followed last week's Arbitration Panel decision which sealed the fate of the America's Cup World Series Sardinia, much to the disappointment of the home team, six times America's Cup Challenger, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli.

The build-up to the 2021 America's Cup in Auckland is now largely in the hands of NZ governmental agencies, and their counterparts in UK, USA, and Italy.

Beginning Wednesday, March 25, a four-week lock-down will take effect in New Zealand, when all non-essential businesses have to close, and all work will be done from home.

That has three immediate implications for the America's Cup.

Firstly, all construction will have to stop on Emirates Team NZ's second AC75 and their likely race boat. Hopefully, that is a delay of just a month in a build plan which always has a very tight critical path to allow the designers the maximum time to put the finishing touches on the hull design.

Time lost on the AC75 construction is not something that can be easily caught up by working double shifts, or throwing more builders at the problem. The project plans are way to tight for that. A day or two maybe, but a month is a deal-breaker.

Emirates Team New Zealand does make a big gain, with the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 - expected to be staged after the 2021 America's Cup.

That will give the Kiwi team access to its full sailing team from now right through to the America's Cup. Four sailors, Peter Burling, Blair Tuke, Josh Junior and Andy Maloney, who have been pursuing Olympic programs in the Finn and 49er classes, will now able to focus fully on the America's Cup.

Their availability - which previously would not have been until mid to late August will make sailing program decisions a lot simpler, as the team optimises its program between sailing the first AC75, Te Aihe, the test boat - the 12metre long Te Kaahu, and the second AC75 race boat when it is launched.

The second impact of the lock-down is on the Challengers, who lose a month in their base construction in Auckland. That affects their arrival time in Auckland, which in turn dictates when they can start sailing from their completed bases.

The workaround for that issue is to do overtime - provided that can be accommodated within the multitude of consents involved in the construction of the America's Cup facilities.

The third impact relates to the creation of the facilities on Wynyard Point by the very capable Wynyard Edge Alliance, which has performed outstandingly.

WEA operates under the constraint of resource consents negotiated over three days of mediation which took place over three days between a flock of lawyers in a large conference room in an Auckland hotel. A key outcome of that negotiation was that construction ceased in the late afternoon.

The 28 calendar days lost in the shutdown is not as severe as it would appear, given that it includes weekends and the Easter break. The time lost is probably recoverable with some astute re-jigging of project plans by the very capable WEA.

In a written statement to Sail-World, America's Cup Events said: "ACE are continuing to support the teams on the construction of their bases and the implications of the COVID19 restrictions enforced to date. Currently it is too early to confirm what effect the lockdown will have on the build times of those team bases currently underway."

Virus unravels European ACWS

The decision to cancel the Portsmouth regatta has put the Auckland racing program in a much sharper focus.

The America's Cup World Series did not come together easily with teams running their own agendas. In the end, the Challenger of Record and the Defender got the right to organise one European regatta each before the coronavirus intervened.

The other two super teams - NYYC American Magic and INEOS Team UK were believed to be reluctant participants. They were forced to compete under the threat of a rule in the Cup Protocol making ACWS participation a prerequisite for participation in the Challenger Selection Series.

The shotgun marriage began to unravel on March 5 when New York Yacht Club's American Magic lodged their Application to the Arbitration Panel citing "the serious health issues in Italy, along with legal measures approved by the Italian government".

About a week later, Emirates Team New Zealand clearly frustrated with the indecision from the Challenger of Record organisation (CoR36), issued their own statement saying it was clearly impossible to proceed with the event, due to the obvious situation with COVID-19, in Italy.

That was followed by a statement from Luna Rossa complaining that the Kiwis had called the regatta off, and without discussing a postponement until after ACWS Portsmouth.

On March 18, The Arbitration Panel ruled on the American Magic application and put an end to the conjecture by declaring the Sardinia event to be cancelled because of a force majeure.

INEOS Team UK sought to have the Arbitration Panel also rule out ACWS Portsmouth, however, Arbitration Panel declined, as that was outside the scope of the American Magic Application.

On the original ACWS program, two of the teams - INEOS Team UK and Luna Rossa Parda Pirelli would now be working up in Cagliari. American Magic and Emirates Team NZ would have been unpacking after the sea-voyage from Pensacola and Auckland respectively.

Difficult choices ahead for all teams

Luna Rossa has had a few challenges after dismasting in late January, followed a month later by ripping her bowsprit out of the boat, leaving a big hole in the bow area. In a note on social media, posted after the Cagliari ASWS cancellation said Luna Rossa said their team were staying in Cagliari until their departure for New Zealand.

But their builder Persico is located in Bergamo - the worst affected area in the Italian coronavirus epidemic - with the second Luna Rossa AC75, and likely race boat, still under construction. Extracting that hull, in the current circumstances, will not be easy.

The Brits are exiting Cagliari, and are expected to ship their AC75 Britannia back to Portsmouth. Government dictates willing and should be able to continue training on the Solent during the Spring and English Summer.

It is understood that American Magic's Defiant is packed and ready to go - to Portsmouth or Auckland. The team told the Arbitration Panel that they had managed to gain an extra week in their shipping schedule to Cagliari, and got the Arbitration Panel decision with just a day to spare.

Emirates Team New Zealand's AC75 is on a ship heading for Italy. "It is still on route to its original destination, Italy at which point it will continue to the UK or be turned around," Dalton told Sail-World.com, last Thursday.

American Magic are said to be keen to get to New Zealand as quickly as possible.

NZ immigration/shutdown/ACWS hurdles ahead

In more straight-forward times, the challenging teams would have headed straight to New Zealand and set up with their first AC75's.

However, the NZ Coalition Government's blanket ban last week on all incoming visitors creates a problematic situation which will have to be negotiated. Of course, any members of the teams who are NZ Nationals can enter NZ.

The NZ Govt move was aimed primarily at inbound tourists who would not comply with a standard requirement for a period of 14-day self-isolation, but it has unwittingly caught the America's Cup teams who would typically be in New Zealand for six months or more and can work through a quarantine.

In their March 5, Application to the Arbitration Panel, American Magic requested an extra regatta in Auckland. The Arbitration Panel pointed out that they did not have the jurisdiction to amend the Protocol arbitrarily, and any additional regattas (other than the ACWS Auckland/Christmas Cup) regatta would have to be agreed between the teams.

Without additional regattas in Auckland, the teams will be leaving their first hit-out until just three weeks before the start of the Prada Cup for the Challenger Selection Series, which is a high-risk strategy. On the previous schedule, the Auckland ACWS regatta would have been an opportunity for the teams to do final checks on their race boats.

Under the Protocol, the teams are prohibited from sailing against each other unless specifically permitted to do so by Iain Murray, the Regatta Director.

They are also prohibited from sailing their first AC75 against their second, in the time-honoured two-boat testing regimes which were a major part of any America's Cup campaign up to the 2007 regatta in Valencia.

An exception is made for the Defender, Emirates Team New Zealand, which can do two-boat testing once the Prada Cup starts. This America's Cup, unlike the last, the Defender will not be sailing in the Challenger Selection Series.

At any time a team can two-boat test at will, using a 12metre test boat against the race boat AC75. It will depend on the speed differential between the two as to how practical that option would be. However, it would certainly be useful to test two boats with the same characteristics in the starting box, on mark roundings, and downwind where the speeds are likely to have the least differential.

Certainly, the use of test boats would be a big step up from the 2017 America's Cup where Emirates Team New Zealand used a chase boat as an opponent against the AC50.

In reality, there is little point in any team counting on being able to get some regular test sailing in New Zealand before September 1 - which marks the end of the Kiwi winter.

Spring in the City of Sails, can also be disrupted by fresh to strong winds and many days will be lost if the Challengers stick to the wind limits set of 21kts for the Round Robins and 23kts for the Final of the Prada Cup.

Can Cup kick-start Kiwi tourism industry?

The New Zealand authorities have acted with alacrity to contain the COVID-19 virus, and on the basis of what has happened elsewhere in the world, it would seem that the NZ measures should be sufficient.

The 2021 America's Cup will form an important part of the exit strategy for New Zealand to right a capsized and near-sunk tourism industry - which is the biggest casualty of COVID-19.

In the 2000 and 2003 America's Cups in New Zealand, the kiwi tourism authorities rather cheekily took advantage of the two events to fund/sponsor international media to experience tourist attractions and get the message back to their readers and viewers.

Having a major event, of a substantial duration which draws a large international TV audience will be a substantial weapon in the recovery of New Zealand Inc.

The team spend over a six month or longer period is substantial. Seventy-five superyachts are booked into Auckland, and 120 likely, each historically spends several million dollars each within NZ. A substantial portion of that goes outside the Auckland economy as the owners, friends and family savor the NZ tourist spots.

Then there is the spend by incoming Cup fans, provided processes can be put in place to ensure they don't trigger an inflow of coronavirus.

The America's Cup isn't the complete remedy for the near-dead NZ tourism industry, but it does offer an excellent kick start, and suddenly the investment in the event and facilities by the NZ Government and Auckland Council look set to deliver a very significant and timely return.

The West Australian state government seized the opportunity afforded by the hosting of the 1987 America's Cup in Fremantle, to showcase the State, its attractions and build a highly favourable image built around a strategy of doing a hard sell to invited international media. The upshot was the best America's Cup ever held - with images of white sand beaches, glorious Indian Ocean, blue skies and brilliant sunshine splashed in primetime evening TV in the USA, and elsewhere, night after night. The sailing action wasn't too bad either.

It is unlikely that the America's Cup will be postponed, as both the Challenger and Defender have to sign off on any Protocol change, and it is unlikely Emirates Team New Zealand would agree because of financial considerations. There is a massive cost of a 12-month postponement to teams and programs which typically burn through US$1.5-$2million a month.

If the timelines are moved 12 months, there is no opportunity to recover that increased expenditure from sponsors - particularly with the likelihood that the 2020 Olympics will be a 2021 or 2022 event, which will suck any lazy dollars remaining in sponsor budgets.

Defender strong on paper

On paper the Defender is currently well ahead of the Challengers on a logistical basis. ETNZ has a base already operational in Auckland, a separate construction facility in Auckland and with strong supplier support. Although their first AC75 is in limbo between Singapore and Italy, that will be back in New Zealand inside a couple of months. In the meantime, the team is running a very good test boat that is returning good data testing new design options.

They are a tight young team, already with the self-belief and confidence an America's Cup win - gained under very difficult circumstances, which only made the team more focussed and stronger. With two current Olympic class world champions in their sailing line up they have had their racing competence reconfirmed, in white-hot pre-Olympic competition.

As already mentioned, the silver lining in the cloud of the Tokyo 2020 postponement is that four of the sailing team, also running Olympic programs will be freed to concentrate 100% on the America's Cup without having to dovetail an Olympic regatta into their 2020/21 sailing diaries. The downside of the loss of the Olympics is that Burling in particular will have to find some top competition to replace the Olympics and be race-sharp for the 36th America's Cup Match beginning March 6, 2021.

For that reason expect at least one and maybe two extra America's Cup regattas to be inserted into the Auckland schedule, and for more emphasis to go on two boat testing/race practice from the Defender once they are legally allowed, when the Challenger Selection Series gets underway.

Climatic reasons also preclude sliding the America's Cup back into April or later. Today, not even the end of March, the winds are outside the limits for racing at 27-30kts, temperatures have dropped and winter is fast approaching.

The 2021 America's Cup will not be easy for any teams. But that is the nature of the beast, and is why only four nations have their names on the 170 year old trophy.

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