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America's Cup challenge hits court

  Court Watch  -   POSTED: 2007/10/25 13:07

A New York Supreme Court judge has heard arguments about whether Alinghi, the Swiss team that holds the America's Cup, must meet America's BMW-Oracle 10 months from now in a race between giant catamarans or trimarans. Tom Ehman, an international sailing rules expert from the Detroit area who works for Oracle and has been involved with the America's Cup for 27 years, said that the Swiss are taking that possibility seriously.

"Within hours of the time we issued our challenge, they were on the telephone to the same multihull experts we've been talking to. In fact, for a while there was a kind of bidding war going on," said Ehman, who was one of the people arguing Oracle's case in New York City on Monday. The judge is expected to issue a ruling in two to three weeks.

The Swiss successfully defended the America's Cup off Valencia, Spain, in July and immediately accepted a Spanish yacht club as the challenger of record for a 33rd Cup in 2009.

While other countries can enter, the challenger of record runs the sail-off series to select the boat that will meet the defender in the America's Cup finals and negotiates the ground rules with the defender.

BMW-Oracle has challenged the validity of the Spanish club, saying it doesn't meet the requirements of the 1887 Deed of Gift that sets the basic rules for the America's Cup.

BMW-Oracle's challenge specifies a race in boats with a maximum waterline length and beam (width) of 90 feet. That could only be a huge catamaran or trimaran, which would approach the 50 m.p.h. mark.

Most sailing experts agree that BMW-Oracle is right. The Spanish club was formed only two weeks before the last cup ended, giving it a shaky hold on the requirement that it be an established yacht club. Nor has it held an "annual regatta," as the deed requires.

It's clear that the Spanish club was set up as Alinghi's puppet, in return for which the Swiss agreed to keep the America's Cup -- and the massive tourism dollars it earns -- in Valencia.

The Spanish club is so pliant that it has allowed Alinghi to design a new, 90-foot-waterline boat that would be used in the 33rd Cup in secret. So far, Alinghi has refused to reveal the design parameters to potential challengers, giving the Swiss a head start of several months in the crucial technological challenge of building the fastest boat.

"This is not the best time I've ever had in 27 years with the America's Cup," said Ehman, who is the spokesman for San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club (the official challenging organization) and negotiates with other syndicates as the head of external affairs for BMW-Oracle Racing.

Ehman may have more history with America's Cup controversies than any living sailor. In 1983, when America lost the cup for the first time in 132 years, he was involved with Dennis Conner's Liberty syndicate in the battle over the legality of Australia II's radical wing keel. (The Aussies won.)

And closer to this case, in 1987, he warned the San Diego Yacht Club early on that an unexpected challenge by New Zealand with a 135-foot monohull was probably going to be upheld in court.

He was right, and the Americans met the challenge with a 60-foot catamaran in an event that saw San Diego retain the America's Cup but lose support from sailors in the United States and worldwide over what those sailors viewed as cheating.

"Just about every lawyer I talked to who has read the deed thinks (Alinghi) is wrong. But will they lose in court? You don't know. It's up to a judge, one guy," Ehman said. "After listening to the arguments in court and the judge's questions, I came away even more confident, but you can't be 100% sure."

If the Swiss lose, they can negotiate with the Americans. Ehman said that rather than have two syndicates race giant catamarans, BMW-Oracle would prefer to involve all of the challengers and the defender in selecting a new monohull design for a Cup off Valencia in 2010.

"But if they lose and won't negotiate, then we are ready to build the multihull and race next September. We have a design team and a build facility, and we are ready to push the button," Ehman said. He added, "That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for the America's Cup. I think a lot of people would love to watch giant multihulls" dicing around the turn marks at 30-40 miles per hour."

If it comes to a multihull event this time around, the atmosphere toward BMW-Oracle should be much different than it was toward Dennis Conner's San Diego entry in the 1987 debacle.

That's because both Oracle and Alinghi will have equal chances to build the fastest racing yacht ever designed, which could be the key to making the America's Cup a big television draw among non-sailors.

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