New Zealanders put faith in passion and protocol

The America's Cup will have a new look for the challenge in Auckland in 1999. Stuart Alexander reports from San Diego
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The 6,000-mile trip from southern California to northern New Zealand is only part of the journey the America's Cup is destined to make over the next five years. Whether such a long time-frame proves to be right, because it allows proper time for the development of a brilliant event, or wrong, because all momentum and sporting public interest is lost, remains to be seen.

It may also clash with sponsorship cash gathering for the Sydney Olympics, but America's Cup XXX will be very different from the two that have gone before in San Diego, if only because the New Zealanders care so passionately for sailing and will make the syndicates, their compounds and any associated village a central part of their lives. They will also turn out in droves and a huge number of boats to watch the races.

That, plus the bigger breezes, should restore some of the glory that was evident in Fremantle in 1986/87. It should provide a backdrop and atmosphere of excitement which can be picked up by television and transmitted to audiences in their homes around the world, especially the United States.

The American defence not only had no answer to a challenger package in which everything clicked into place. They messed around with the rules of their own game so much they did not even know what they were up against.

What the Kiwis achieved eclipsed the 4-3 win by Australia's John Bertrand over Dennis Conner in 1983. Conner's record of having lost the cup twice is balanced by winning it four times, though the 1988 catamaran affair was distasteful.

The next America's Cup will be really big. It will also be governed by a new set of ground rules, the "America's Cup XXX Protocol", and an arbitration panel of five, which replaces the three-man group of trustees made up of the commodores of the three previous clubs which held the cup.

The 22-page document calls for challenges by 13 May 1996 with an entry fee of $100,000, or late challenges up to 31 December 1998, paying double. The New York Yacht Club will be challenger of record and will therefore organise the Louis Vuitton Cup elimination series to find the eventual challenger, unless the syndicates as a group agree to form a Challenger of Record Committee.

The clubs must be bona fide, with a track record, not "paper" clubs dreamed up to exploit the many commercial opportunities. The nationality rules for the competitors will be tightened, calling for three years' residency rather than the present two.

The protocol bans any tobacco advertising by a syndicate anywhere in the world, including holding company names or logos. A lengthy section covers spying. The Kiwis were also upset by the way in which the rule permitting two new boats was undermined by making wholesale changes, so they will prohibit change to a maximum of 20 per cent below the waterline.

But they have increased the number of racing sails allowed from 45 to 60. And they give a little fillip to the New Zealand marine industry by allowing new appendages to be built there as long as they are designed by the nationals of the syndicate.

The nettle they have failed to grasp is that the event, at four months, is still far too long. They hope to stage interim regattas, but they are not as important as "the real thing" and, during a northern hemisphere winter, there is a limit to the attention span of a public that is used to seeing the final of something nearly every week.

There will also be a plethora of events staged to coincide with what many people see as the end of a millenium on 31 December 1999. The competition for attention will be frenzied.

One plus is that the likelihood of continued major sponsorhip of the challenger series has increased because of the move from the rather apathetic San Diego. The Louis Vuitton company has supported the last four cups, which produced three winners, and will be better disposed to support its fifth because the Americans will be challengers. That means there is a better chance of network television coverage.

To win the America's Cup is still at the very difficult end of the scale. The Kiwis have shown it can be done on a budget of £10m to £11m and there is no doubt that major commercial benefits can be derived by the sponsors, as the event will attract large audiences in the United States, Japan, the Pacific rim and Europe. The US, Australia and Spain are already in line to challenge.

For Britain to mount a serious challenge would require the sort of selfless dedication on the part of the sailing team that is not always apparent. The science and technology is at hand, but some outside talent would have to be bought in reasonably soon, and the challenge would have to be brought to the public in a non-litist way. Most of all, it is achievable - 5- 0 by the Kiwis over Dennis Conner and the United States said that to everyone emphatically.