A long, long way from Newport, R.I.

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Next year’s America’s Cup regatta appears headed for an Arab emirate — and possibly back to court

A scant 50 miles across the Persian Gulf from Iran, just a gunboat ride away from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s turf, the United Arab Emirates looks like it may be the venue of the 33rd America’s Cup come February.

The Ras al-Khaimah venue would mark the first time the racing woruld take place outside the United States, Europe or New Zealand-Australia.

America’s Cup defender Alinghi and its yacht club, the Société Nautique de Genève, announced Aug. 5 that they have chosen Ras al-Khaimah for the three-race one-on-one competition. It is the northeasternmost of the emirates and the lesser-known, lesser-developed cousin of super-westernized Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

In another sharp break with Cup tradition, boats for the first time will be able to race with powered hydraulic winches and movable ballast, so muscle-bound grinders might well be less in demand than for earlier Cup regattas. That one issue, which had been hanging fire in New York Supreme Court, was decided July 30 in favor of Alinghi.

At a hearing 10 days later, BMW Oracle revealed that BOR 90, the 90-foot trimaran it has been sea-trialing off San Diego, will be its Cup entry. Alinghi, which doesn’t have to declare what boat it will race yet, likely will enter a 90-foot catamaran that reportedly carries an engine to power hydraulic winches and movable ballast. A Russian Mil Mi26 helicopter airlifted the big cat 165 miles over the Alps from Lake Geneva, Switzerland, to the Yacht Club Italiano in Genoa, Italy, Aug. 7 for crew training and sea trials.

The Mideast venue was the latest surprise in the continuing America’s Cup saga. “This whole Cup is becoming a freak show,” says Gary Jobson, who won in 1977 as tactician on Ted Turner’s Courageous and has covered Cup racing for ESPN. But the freak show does turn heads. “People are interested in what the heck is going on. They shake their heads, but they want to know what’s going on.”

Jobson says this Cup — a best of three series with just one challenger and two extraordinarily costly boats — is probably an anomaly, but it promises to be a riveting grudge match between billionaires Ernesto Bertarelli, the Swiss pharmaceuticals magnate, and Larry Ellison, the American computer guru. The two have been jockeying in court for two years — and are still there. During that time, however, they’ve built a couple of blisteringly fast 90-foot multihulls to go to battle in.

Jobson suspects one or the other boat — he has no idea which — will be significantly faster than the other and will take the series in just two races.

The venue remained in dispute in mid-August. BMW Oracle and its Golden Gate Yacht Club aren’t happy with Ras al-Khaimah because Alinghi hadn’t consulted them about it.

“We once again advise you that it is our firm view that the selection of a Northern Hemisphere venue, other than Valencia, without our mutual consent contravenes the Deed [of Gift] and the Order and Judgment of the Court of Appeals,” GGYC commodore Marcus Young wrote to SNG vice commodore Fred Meyer Aug. 6. He also maintains that the venue may not comply with the Deed rule that a Cup course be an “ocean course, free of headlands.” The racing would take place near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, inside the Strait of Hormuz.

Explaining the choice of a Mideast venue, Alinghi captain Brad Butterworth says his crew trained in winter in nearby Dubai and liked the sailing on the Persian Gulf. “In the end, we settled on Ras al-Khaimah in particular because of the infrastructure in Al Hamra Village and because it has a great building sea breeze during the day, similar to Mediterranean conditions in the summer, making it good for these boats and safe for all concerned,” he says.

It would be the first Cup held outside America, Europe or New Zealand-Australia. Ras al-Khaimah is one of seven emirates in the UAE. It covers 656 square miles and has a population of 300,000 and an economic base that now is mostly industrial.

According to a Q&A on SNG’s Web site, Ras al-Khaimah is not paying SNG any venue fee but will make a “multi-million-dollar” investment in infrastructure for the Cup. The race facilities and accommodations for teams, press and the public would be based at the 55-acre Al Hamra Village and lagoon, a new luxury coastal resort. Security is not an issue, SNG maintains, and points to the many western companies that have offices in the emirate and the number of international sporting and cultural events hosted there.

“This is a venue that offers perfect weather and great sailing conditions for a match in February,” says Meyer. “The authorities have shown tremendous interest in and support for hosting the America’s Cup, and the country has experience in organizing first-class sporting events such as ATP tennis, PGA golf and Formula One. They will make a purpose-built island available at the Al Hamra Village in Ras al-Khaimah to provide the America’s Cup teams, sponsors and fans with an outstanding venue.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.