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America's Cup future at stake as summit agreed

California dreaming could turn to America's Cup reality this weekend as the warring factions of Swiss holder Ernesto Bertarelli's Alinghi and would-be challenger BMW Oracle's Larry Ellison meet face to face after circling each other for over 12 months.

Bertarelli is in the golden state on business, Ellison is addressing 40,000 delegates to an Oracle jamboree, but they are expected to sit down and try to thrash out a resolution to a dispute which is imprisoned in the New York legal system.

At stake is the immediate future of what claims to be sport's oldest trophy - though the Doggett's Coat and Badge rowing race was first staged on the Thames in 1715 - and the careers of hundreds of top rank sailors, builders and designers, not least in Britain's stalled Origin challenge.

Unusually, this will not be a rubber stamp meeting of number ones. The officials further down the line have not drawn up a blueprint which is already largely agreed. "There has been no contact between the teams and there is nothing new on the table from them," said Alinghi skipper Brad Butterworth.

It is quite possible that the billionaire bosses, whose mutual passion is for yacht racing have, for separate reasons, decided that it may be better to cut the Gordian knot of public intransigence. Oracle's challenging vehicle, the Golden Gate Yacht Club, repeated this week its offer to abandon the legal route forcing its way into the Challenger of Record slot.

At the moment, the legal cards are in Bertarelli's hand. The latest court decision on the viability of his chosen Challenger of Record, with whom the rules for the next Cup were drawn up, went his way.

But some of the 3-2 majority thinking by the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court was baffling and Ellison immediately appealed. The case is not expected to be heard before early January and could drag on.

Speaking from his team's base in Valencia today, Russell Coutts, Ellison's ceo and skipper, Bertarelli's discarded skipper, said that Oracle simply wanted a return to the multi-challenger rules that were in place prior to the last, 32nd, Cup in Valencia last year. "We don't want the defender to have total control over the challenger race series and practice races," he said. "The fundamental rules were there and worked pretty well. We have still had no explanation of why they had to be changed."

He has been pre-occupied with building a 90-foot trimaran at a cost of up to $100m and has no status even as an official challenger, does not know when any race may take place, and knows that Alinghi could choose a track that is entirely unsuitable for the style of boat he has built.

Bertarelli is fed up of being denigrated around the world and largely blamed for the whole situation. He feels he has been ready to compromise with the other potential challengers and has many good commercial as well as sporting reasons for putting the show back on the road.

Into the vacuum has stepped the former sponsor of the challenger series, the French luxury goods firm Louis Vuitton, which is trying to set up the first of what could be many rival regattas in Auckland next January/February.

For everyone, there is a problem of timing. The plan for a 2009 event in Valencia, Spain, has already been binned and many teams have had to lay everyone off until the way forward for them, and any potential funding from sponsors, is clear. It will take some time for such a long and heavy freight train to regain momentum.

Alinghi is clear that it wants to kick start America's Cup 33 as soon as possible and says it is ready to reconvene with potential challengers over the design of a new 90-foot boat that could compete in other arenas and would, as the event has done for the last 20 years, contract with the sport's world governing body, the International Sailing Federation, over the appointment of officials.

But the Swiss group still wants to move forward in terms of a single entity, something that the maverick tendency which permeates sailboat racing from top to bottom, will always try to resist. The first requirement could also be the most fragile, and that is trust.

In Cannes, racing was curtailed at the Panerai Regates Royales as a mark of respect to British yachtsman Wilf Tolhurst, killed when his yacht was dismasted in a collision on Tuesday.

The organising Yacht Club de Cannes says that the local police investigation has been concluded without recourse to any continuing criminal proceedings.

Cannes Yacht Club vice-president Jean-Paul Ortelli talks to Stuart Alexander following the death of Wilf Tolhurst at the Regates Royales in the Bay of Cannes