Sailing: America's Cup plays fair at last: Stuart Alexander on a rule change that will bring hope to challengers


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The Independent Online

Few people predicted it would ever happen, but this week in San Diego should see a major change in the America's Cup rules which happily would boost the chances of Britain winning back what it lost in 1851. Unfortunately, all the other challengers for the 'Auld Mug' will also benefit.

After months of negotiations, though it could have been years, the San Diego Yacht Club, which successfully defended in 1992, will announce its agreement to a common declaration date for the defender and the challengers to name their yacht.

From the beginning the defenders, for 132 years the New York Yacht Club, required any challenger to give details of its yacht for six and then 10 months before any match. The NYYC did not have to name its defender until the morning of the first race of the series.

That allowed the defender to build yachts later and to include development benefits. Now both will be able to make a late declaration, perhaps only a fortnight before the final match, in contrast to 1992 when the challengers had to settle on a yacht nearly four months in advance while the defender could keep on building new ones.

This levelling of the playing field will be accompanied by a further agreement that no syndicate can register more than two new hulls in any one Cup period. This is meant to reduce costs, though policing non-registered hulls, or bogus syndicates, will be very difficult.

Coupled with the late declaration date, which protects innovation by a small syndicate from being copied by others, this should boost the challenger's chances and may, by reducing the built-in advantage of the defender, lead to greater mobility of venue.

A further clause in the 1993 protocol, negotiated by the executive director of the challenger group, Ernie Taylor, will impose sanctions to prevent the sort of spying activites that led to such unpleasantness during the 1992 Cup.

Britain has already persuaded the rest of the challengers to move the next due payment of dollars 250,000 from each syndicate back to January from its original date of 1 July. With the meeting of all the challengers now scheduled to take place at Cowes on 14 July, the syndicate, at present headed by the east coast boatbuilder Richard Matthews, should be boosted in their campaign to raise cash for the British challenge.

Harry Cudmore, skipper of the last British challenge in 1987 and now working closely with Matthews on the British Challenge for the America's Cup '95, said yesterday: 'We have supported this proposal throughout. It makes the event fairer for the challengers, we welcome it, and we applaud the SDYC's response to our presentations.'

He thought the benefits would come in the longer, rather than short term, but added: 'We believe the budgets for the next Cup will be significantly smaller as all the front end loaded expense of establishing the new class of yacht is behind us.

'We also know that both the defenders and the challengers are very keen to see a continued British involvement. We had 10 Britons in senior positions with other syndicates in 1992, so we know we are up to speed with the game and, as the economy in Britain is coming back to life, we are starting to talk more seriously to British backers.'

In France, Marc Pajot is spending every penny he can find on research, knowing he has the backing of Jacques Chirac, mayor of Paris now and favourite to be the next President. What is unclear is whether he will be able to run two challenges and so immediately break the two boat restriction.

Angry local fishermen yesterday agreed to call off their threatened blockade of the 23 yachts in the UAP Round Europe Race after organisers agreed to use one of their trawlers, carrying protest banners, as the platform to start the race at La Rochelle today.