Vincenzo Onorato: How to save the America's Cup
I have received numerous requests to intervene, also in the light of the ruling passed by New York Supreme Court. Over the past few years I believe I have been quite restrained in commenting on the difficulties facing the Cup. You'll have noticed that I wrote Cup with a capital "C", and this is indicative of my respect and my passion for sailing and for the America's Cup in particular. We undoubtedly now find ourselves in extremely choppy waters, and it is therefore important to chart our position before plotting our course.
The whole problem stems from the protocol drawn up by Alinghi for the 33rd America's Cup which was presented at the end of the regattas in Valencia. This affirmation might appear a trite observation but, as time has passed, I have become increasingly convinced that very few people, including journalists have taken the trouble of reading this document. Whoever has done so with a minimum of attention, but with a sense of humour, will not have been able to hold back a smile, because this is a document designed to regulate a competition which totally lacks any sense of fair play: Alinghi claims the right to choose, at its sole discretion, the regatta judges, the committee, the umpires and the measurers, even going so far as to state that they must be its employees; in short, it unilaterally lays down the rules of the game. Alinghi, again at its sole discretion, claims the right to accept a challenge or to penalise a rival.
There were some who realised this immediately: it was immediately challenged by the seven teams who, a few days after the protocol had been published, signed a letter of objection (Oracle, Mascalzone Latino, Team New Zealand, Germany, Victory, K-Challenge, Luna Rossa); it was challenged by the historic sponsor of the challenger selection series, Louis Vuitton, who announced, in a press release dated 13 July 2007, its withdrawal on the grounds that it did not agree with the rules for the 33rd Cup.
To underline Alinghi's complete lack of respect for the role of "trustee", as sanctioned by the "Deed of Gift", the central document on which the regulatory framework of the event is based, it elected as "Challenger of Record" the Spanish Nautical Yacht Club, a non-existent club with no history or members, essentially a sleeping partner that would have given it complete and unconditional control of the event. Alinghi's team worked hard in the aftermath of Oracle's legal action brought before the Supreme Court of New York to cry scandal and present itself to the whole world as the poor victims attacked by the American bear which had in effect blocked the event by bringing it before the courts. It is worth dispelling any misconceptions on this point: the Cup was effectively brought before the Court by Alinghi, with its ignominously unsporting protocol. Oracle's legal challenge was a courageous salvage operation of the oldest sports trophy in known history. This explains why, here at Mascalzone Latino, we supported Oracle at the Supreme Court of New York with our "amicus brief".
Alinghi's media-oriented defense was to state that the other challengers, including Team New Zealand, had been ready to accept the protocol. Today, after the action filed by Team New Zealand, what we already knew has come to light: Alinghi took advantage of the extremely weak economic position in which most of the teams found themselves to impose its own will. It promised cash to Team New Zealand in the form of waiving registration fees and even going so far as to offer an option on Oracle's base!
To sum up, Alinghi's plan was to control the Cup and its challengers in order to guarantee its subsidiary, ACM total economic control of the event. In this context, Alinghi's terse comments seem completely superfluous when it recalled how, in the past, it was the Americans who created the culture of the defender's privilege. The actions taken by the American defenders were childish attempts compared to the complex plot woven above all by Alinghi. The Americans from New York Yacht Club were motivated solely by a deep sense of pride and privilege in keeping the Cup in the States, not for base economic motifs!
This brings us to the second aspect of this affair, the economic and commercial side. It is my opinion that the money offered by sponsors should be used to fund the event. I keep my work, which brings in my bread and butter, separate from sailing and I believe that the other businessmen leading the syndicates should do the same. Therefore, I do not agree with Alinghi's avidity, which unfortunately is not even backed by an intelligent commercial strategy. One particular detail has escaped most people: Louis Vuitton decided to back out of the Cup before and not after the legal action brought by Oracle before the Supreme Court of New York. When I think of the America's Cup, I automatically think of the Louis Vuitton Cup. The two are inseparable, not only blending tradition but also class and culture. They backed out and walked away, on tiptoe, with the good breeding characteristic of those who work for the French company. Given that I had the pleasure of meeting them, I know how much it cost them to abandon the event, the selection of the official challenger, to which only their brand and no other had succeeded in giving such a profound sense of identity. Incompatibility with Mr Bertarelli's vision. This was the gist of the brief comments they made. Losing Louis Vuitton is further proof of the total lack of culture and respect for tradition shown by the top management of Alinghi in handling this event. Above all and paradoxically, it is an intellectual shortfall without precedent in the Cup's history. As if that were not enough, it is also an irreparable error of marketing: the Cup today is an enormous industry funded by major sponsors and a few tycoons. It is an enormous engine driven - in media terms - by glamour, status and tradition. Losing Vuitton has created a culture of suspicion among the sponsors and Alinghi's decision to take the Cup to court has effectively brought this enormous engine to a halt.
Let's come back to the story and to the work I have done in the past few months, since the end of the Cup. I spent the entire summer of 2007 in a vain attempt to broker a settlement between Oracle and Alinghi. I knew that a sure-fire way of losing all the sponsors was to take the Cup to court and I wanted to avoid this.I established contacts with Oracle in order to discuss our points of view. Contrary to Alinghi's declarations, I found Russell Coutts very willing to talk. Oracle's primary motivation was the same as Mascalzone Latino's: to achieve an honest and reliable competition. So I drafted a protocol that broadly speaking included the same rules that governed the 32nd Cup, specifying that, in order to cut costs, the same yachts would be used as in the last event and the use of the new 90ft A.C. class would be postponed until the 34th Cup. In the meantime, the challengers would jointly draw up the new class rules, which would not give such unfair advantages to the defender. I obtained - I have to confess, to my great personal satisfaction - an informal guarantee from Oracle that if my draft protocol was accepted by Alinghi, they would immediately withdraw their legal action pending before the New York Supreme Court. The Cup would be saved, and also the date of the event and the economic interests of the city of Valencia. Then I presented the protocol to Alinghi, who did not even have the good manners to reply with a "no thanks, we're not interested."
In the autumn, Oracle proved all too ready to negotiate with Alinghi, to the point of accepting almost all the points imposed in the much discussed protocol, only to be turned down again with a scornful refusal.
At Mascalzone Latino, although we had not been summoned to appear before the Supreme Court, we joined the proceedings and presented a document summing up our position: in short, this stated that Alinghi's protocol had completely distorted the key principles of the Deed of Gift and the universal principles of fair play. During those hot autumn days, I also had a feeling that an Italian challenge was being prepared simply to exclude us from the Cup, once and forever. Alinghi had declared that it would probably accept only one national challenger. So we launched our challenge, following the dictates laid down by the protocol. We also had to demonstrate the existence of the Reale Yacht Club Canottieri Savoia, at its third challenge in the America's Cup and with a one hundred year-old history to its name! Alinghi was a little less precise with its Challenger of Records, the "Club Nautico Espano de Vela" which could only claim to have been in existence for a few hours...
Since the start of this letter, I have given Alinghi credit for the fact that the affair has an underlying sense of comedy, although this is probably unintentional. Following the launch of the challenge, ACM sent us an invoice for fifty thousand euros which we paid immediately. Are we perhaps the only ones to have done so to date? They replied in writing that they would accept our challenge only if we withdrew our declaration filed with the Supreme Court of New York. This is not required by the protocol, but it is clear that Alinghi writes and rewrites the rules to suit its needs. I answered by reminding them that a citizen accepts the laws even if he doesn't agree with them and that in a democracy there is freedom of speech and criticism. The simple metaphor was not understood. ACM/Alinghi replied by claiming a public abjuration. It would have been pointless to remind them that the last Italian forced to make such a strong retraction was Giordano Bruno, in medieval times under the Holy Inquisition...
It's a harsh precedent that will weigh on the future of the Cup and those who love sailing, but leaving irony aside, we must seriously consider that this event has been profoundly damaged by Alinghi. The sponsors have disappeared and people are tired of all these controversies.
The best solution now would be to hold the multi-hull challenge between Oracle and Alinghi, even if, yet again, the latter try to delay the event using every possible tactic. For the survival of the America's Cup, we must hope that Oracle wins, and after that we'll have to roll up our sleeves and work hard. In my humble opinion, the first step must be to reinstate Louis Vuitton. The French company is not only a sponsor, the Sponsor, but is also and above all the leitmotif of a long history that has survived to the present day and must continue into the future. The event can be saved, and it could be held in 2009, or in 2010 at the latest, but to achieve this it is important to acknowledge the weak situation of the event. It would be best to use the yachts from the last Cup for three good reasons:
- To curb costs at a time when all the teams are struggling to survive. Permission should only be given to build one latest generation hull.
- By using the existing fleet, the event could be held within a few months, without requiring enormous economic and organisational efforts, and this would also leave enough time to study the new 90ft A.C. class for the 35th Cup.
- Last but not least, from a sporting point of view: anyone who is a yachtsman knows that regattas are great when they are "close". The yachts in the last Cup had very similar speeds and the best thing about the last Cup was that we watched some very hard fought and spectacular races. We don't want to do without those, do we?
Personally, I am making enormous economic sacrifices to keep an organisation going that will allow us to race in the next America's Cup with dignity and sportsmanship.
I am profoundly saddened about what has happened to this event, but I am a sailor and my experience as a yachtsman is based above all on Farr 40, M30, RC 44 and now also on Melges 32.
Many have lost that spirit of enthusiasm for sailing or perhaps they never had it, but it is from this that we must start afresh...
Good sailing to you all,