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America's Cup 2010

After 28 months of lawyers vs. lawyers, February's high-tech battle of the billionaires will finally pit sailors against sailors

If all the legal shenanigans have turned the America's Cup into a big yawn for you, it's time to sit up and take notice. The regatta is on for Feb. 8-12 in Valencia, Spain, and America's challenger - BMW Oracle Racing - has the deep, deep pockets, the technology and the talent to bring the Cup home.

A BMW Oracle Racing crewmember scales the 190-foot carbon rigid wing of the syndicate's trimaran.

All this, of course, is contingent on the teams' two billionaire bankrollers - American software titan Larry Ellison and Swiss pharmaceuticals magnate Ernesto Bertarelli - staying out of court long enough to decide the Cup on the water. As of mid-December, Ellison's BOR syndicate and Bertarelli's Alinghi, the Cup holder, had agreed to a best two-of-three match in February in Valencia, though some reports have suggested the syndicates might be considering a five- or seven-race format.

A New York appellate court added credence to a February match-up in Valencia with its unanimous Dec. 15 decision to reject Alinghi's appeal to move the Cup to Ras al-Khaimah in United Arab Emirates. The court also rejected the defender's appeal to require its adversary to include the rudder when measuring the load waterline length of its 90-foot trimaran.

After 28 months of suits, countersuits, motions and memoranda of law, the billionaire gladiators appear ready to abandon the briefs for a while and go at it mano a mano in big, radical, technologically sophisticated multihulls. It should be a grand spectacle. The boats can accelerate to two to three times wind speed. It surely will be a real grudge match.

But a lot will depend on whether these cutting-edge behemoths perform to expectations and don't break - always a danger with the enormous loads they generate. And if one is even a little faster than the other, the racing probably won't be close. The faster boat will pull away over the long courses - 20 miles to windward and back in the first and third races, and a triangle course of 13 miles per leg in the second.

The yachts and the sailors

Ellison's BOR 90, dubbed DoGzilla because Ellison challenged Bertarelli to race the Deed of Gift (DoG) match in big multihulls, is a 90-foot carbon composite trimaran. Alinghi 5 is a 90-foot carbon composite catamaran. Of the two, BOR 90 probably is the more sophisticated technologically. It carries 250 sensors that send more than 26,000 pieces of data every second from the mast, keels, rudders, cross beams, hulls and foils to on-board computers so the team can track and analyze stresses and loads, air flow, wind speed and direction, heel and rudder angle, acceleration and other critical information.

BMW Oracle's mega-trimaran reached speeds of more than 30 knots in 10 knots of wind. It has now been fitted with a rigid wing.

BOR 90 was designed by a team of 30, including eminent French multihull designers Marc Van Peteghem and Vincent Lauriot Prevost, and may race for the Cup with a 190-foot rigid wing, which the team still was testing in November. The 6,725-square-foot carbon fiber and Kevlar wing is 80 percent bigger than that of a 747 airliner. Trimmed hydraulically, it has a leading edge that rotates around the mast step and eight flaps that are trimmed independently to catch the wind and deliver the ideal aerofoil shape. Observers have reported the wing delivering more than 20 knots of boat speed in 7 knots of wind.

BMW Oracle Racing syndicate head Larry Ellison (left) and CEO Russell Coutts.

"It's mind-boggling," says Dirk de Ridder, the wing trimmer. "It's so enormous, and the power it generates at very low wind speeds is amazing."

Alinghi 5, launched a little more than 10 months after BOR 90, is more of a tried-and-true design. Based on Jo Richards' and Sebastien Schmidt's 2000 design for Le Black, a 41-foot catamaran, and its successor, the Decision 35, Alinghi 5 was drawn from the get-go to race with motors to power its hydraulic sail trim and water ballast systems, thereby eliminating the beefy winch grinders who have been a Cup institution since the first regatta 158 years ago. A first for Cup racing, the introduction of power trim sent BOR to court to challenge it, but when the judge upheld Alinghi, BOR returned to the drawing board to modify its trimaran to incorporate power trim. Alinghi 5's rig includes a very fast, compact hydraulic-driven jib furler on the bowsprit.

Alinghi 5's design team of 20, led by Aussie Grant Simmer and including New Zealander Tom Schnackenberg, both multiple America's Cup winners, have delivered a boat that is "what we need to sail a Deed of Gift Match - up-down racing of 20 miles," says Murray Jones, the team strategist.

Both syndicates can boast star-studded casts in their afterguards. Russell Coutts, BOR's skipper and CEO, could become the first skipper to win the Cup for three countries: twice for New Zealand, once for Switzerland and, if he wins in 2010, for the United States. The Kiwi holds the record for the most consecutive America's Cup match race wins of any skipper (14). James Spithill is listed as BOR's helmsman, and John Kostecki is tactician.

Leading the charge for Alinghi is New Zealander Brad Butterworth, the syndicate's skipper and tactician and, like Coutts, a defector to Bertarelli's Swiss team in 2003. (Coutts had a falling out with Bertarelli and joined the Americans in 2007). Butterworth has been the tactician on four winning Cup teams - New Zealand's Black Magic in 1995 and 2000 and Alinghi in 2003 and 2007. American Ed Baird is listed as the syndicate's helmsman, Murray Jones as strategist.

Alinghi 5 towers over the fleet of chase boats during a parade to Geneva, Switzerland.

Both BOR and Alinghi have tapped a wealth of French multihull talent to help them learn to race the giant yachts, which require a deft touch. "Some of the sailors who come from the America's Cup discover multihulls for the first time and they immediately get to sail on the fastest one in the world," says Franck Cammas, skipper of the Groupama multihull racing program in France and a BMW Oracle consultant during early training sessions. "We are still very careful. It's extreme; we must not take risks."

Before trialing the rigid wing, Cammas says, BOR was in its element in less than 15 knots of wind. In heavier air, controlling BOR 90's soft sail was very demanding physically for the crew, he says, but the physical challenge should be less now with the rigid wing and hydraulic trimming.

Alinghi's consultants constitute a who's-who of French multihull racing: Alain Gautier, an accomplished multihull sailor and 1992 Vendee Globe winner; Loick Peyron, a three-time Trans-Atlantic Race winner; and Franck Proffit, a two-time Transat Jacques Vabre winner.

The Alinghi team is lead by Swiss pharmaceuticals magnate Ernesto Bertarelli.

The courts

The litigation that has bogged down the America's Cup started some 28 months ago, shortly after the finish of the 32nd America's Cup. BOR/Golden Gate Yacht Club accused Alinghi/Société Nautique de Genève of creating the Spanish Club Náutico Español de Vela specifically so SNG could name it the challenger of record and negotiate with the captive club a set of rules for the 33rd Cup that would reflect Bertarelli's vision for the event and give a racing advantage to Alinghi.

GGYC issued its own challenge to SNG under the America's Cup Deed of Gift, claiming CNEV's challenge was invalid because it was not a legitimate yacht club, but a creature of SNG. GGYC challenged the Swiss club to race a one-on-one best-of-three series - the format required under the Deed of Gift unless challenger and defender negotiate a different format. Exercising its right as challenger, GGYC stipulated the Deed of Gift regatta would be in 90-foot multihulls.

GGYC later said on several occasions that it really didn't want to race a best-of-three series in 90-foot multihulls with just Alinghi and BOR contesting the Cup. If Bertarelli would back off the rules it negotiated with the Spanish club, GGYC would negotiate with the Swiss club a mutually agreeable protocol and proceed with a traditional Cup series - that is, one with a challenger series to pick one syndicate among many to race the defender, Alinghi. GGYC also said it would prefer to race this traditional series in monohulls that more teams could afford to build and race.

Bertarelli wouldn't back down, even after the court ruled for GGYC that the Spanish club was not a real yacht club. He and Ellison could never get to square one in negotiating a traditional Cup series, so the race moved inexorably forward as a battle of the billionaires in 90-foot behemoths - no other teams competing in a challenger series.

In the months since last April's ruling for GGYC as the challenger of record, there have been ongoing court fights about when and where the race will be and over various race rules, including how to measure a boat's waterline length, whether engines can be used to trim sails and move ballast, who will appoint the race juries, when the notice of race must be issued, and when BOR must issue its custom house certificate giving BOR's dimensions and description.

Enough of the bickering. It's on to the water now ... maybe.

This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.