Challengers scour seas for America's Cup elite

Sailing's Hec tic transfer market has been gathering pace ever since Team New Zealand successfully defended the America's Cup in March - and will accelerate further next week when Switzerland announces a powerful new challenge called, ominously, Watch Out.

Sailing's Hec tic transfer market has been gathering pace ever since Team New Zealand successfully defended the America's Cup in March - and will accelerate further next week when Switzerland announces a powerful new challenge called, ominously, Watch Out.

The Swiss are among at least four syndicates trawling aggressively for the leading crew and shore-support specialists, spurred on by the September deadline for registration to meet the nationality and residence rules for the next defence in 2003.

Another talent-hunter is the beaten finalist of the 2000 America's Cup, Patrizio Bertelli. His desire to win has become a consuming passion and wholesale changes are expected in the Prada team, which is funded by his Milan-based fashion house. These include many more non-Italians in the race crew and a shake-up of the design group. Bertelli has also bought both of the Young America yachts, designed by Bruce Farr for the now-defunct syndicate which represented the mighty New York Yacht Club.

All of which has done little to harm the negotiating positions of both TNZ targets and other leading yachting talents around the world. Tom Ehman, who splits his time between Formula One and advising San Francisco's AmericaOne skipper, Paul Cayard, said: "The America's Cup always was bizarre. Now it has turned into an international bazaar."

The leading players are asking huge sums - perhaps $5m (£3.1m) over three years - in a market where the pressure has been increased by running the Volvo Ocean Race (formerly Whitbread) in 2001-02. There is also talk of a second Italian syndicate - Benneton, having sold their Formula One team to Renault, are said to be considering an America's Cup challenge - and the Swiss group is being helped by the pharmaceuticals billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli.

In keeping with an event which seems to be moving not forward into a 21st century of commercial sponsorship but back to its 19th century roots of rich individuals indulging their passions, the Seattle-based telecoms billionaire, Craig McCaw, has been targeting members of TNZ to help mount his US challenge against their former team. He has yet to sign any of the TNZ crew and has, instead, been concentrating on recruiting designers and senior managers.

The little-known yacht-racing fan, described by one close observer as "richer than God and serious about this, very serious", has been negotiating with Laurie Davidson, who was responsible for the designs of the "Black Magic" yachts which in 1995 destroyed the American defender, Dennis Conner, 5-0 on his own home waters off San Diego, and then executed a similar demolition job on Prada this year.

However, Davidson, who owns a home north of Seattle, wants to control the design process and bring in his own team, something which has led to unease at TNZ. Separate talks surround the purchase of a trial horse yacht, Stars & Stripes, from Conner, and buying Young America's dockside facilities in Auckland. Both San Francisco and San Diego are being considered for a home base.

Davidson, curiously excluded from the medal presentations ceremony at the celebration of the successful defence, but picked out from his seat in the bleachers for special mention by the winning skipper Russell Coutts, has - like other TNZ members - not had his contract renewed.

This is while the trustees of the old defence syndicate have strung out negotiations over the transfer of assets from the old guard, headed by Sir Peter Blake, to the new, headed by Coutts, Brad Butterworth and Tom Schnackenberg.

But while a few of the older hands may cash in during the autumn of their careers, the temptations are likely to be rejected by the rising stars such as Dean Barker, the man to whom Coutts handed the helm to administer the coup de grâce to the Italians in their final race. Most of the 12 to 20 crew being approached are members of the shore support, as the new American syndicate would want to be comprised mainly of sailors with a strong stars and stripes hue.

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