Sailing: Fragile truce in war on the water

Tales of paranoia, breached security, aggression and team discord tell us that sailing's oldest event is underway.
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THE BICKERING is in full swing, the budgets are escalating and egos are already being bruised. It must be America's Cup time again.

Sport's oldest trophy may be moving into the 21st century, but it cannot bear to relinquish its grip on the 19th, when its culture was established.

Adding to a powerful cocktail of technological star wars on the equipment side and psycho-wars ashore, this week came a threat by the president of the sport's world governing body, the International Sailing Federation, to outlaw the whole event.

Paul Henderson's gripe is over who makes the rules and who appoints the referees to administer them. He has also insisted that he wants the competing syndicates to pay about $500,000 (pounds 310,000) to the ISAF. But, in his latest missive from his Canadian home, Henderson says: "I told them to forget the dollars and run an outlaw regatta if ISAF did not at least ensure fair play. They are now reneging on their agreement [to run under ISAF rules and let the body appoint the umpires] and I may have to make it an outlawed event, with the relevant penalties for the sailors and ISAF officials."

As if there were not problems enough without threatening to expel the top players. There were howls of dismay when New Zealand announced, in San Diego in 1995, that their win was the last the world would see of an America's Cup in the 20th century. They would, said their national hero and soon-to-be-knighted Peter Blake, defend in February 2000. That meant the event went into a state of suspended animation as the world turned to countless Test matches, five Super Bowls, an Olympic Games and a football World Cup.

But, over the last fortnight in Auckland, the lights were turned on again. It was not just the flashing smile of Frenchman Bruno Trouble, a former Cup helmsman and now the driving force behind the Challenger series sponsorship of Louis Vuitton. He was in good spirits at the reunion, despite having to try to hold things together as late wobbles developed between the America's Cup Challenge Association and the American broadcaster with whom they had a deal, ESPN.

Syndicates constantly need to reassure and appease their sponsors over television exposure. Thus, when one of the syndicates - not surprisingly the New York Yacht Club's Young America - said it was putting a billboard on its hull and mainsail for a rival TV company, Fox, the feathers started flying. And, as ACCA is run by the Challenger record, which doubles as the New York Yacht Club, there were immediate accusations of duplicity of the kind the club endured a century ago.

Whatever had happened to the pledges to turn the America's Cup into a friendlier event instead of being riddled by paranoia about security, with people using lasers and infra-red to hack into data transmissions, or stealthy divers to take pictures of secret keel designs?

But the aggression on the water has already begun. The pilot of the Team New Zealand support boat took exception to the close attentions of his Nippon Challenge opposite number and took radical action. He rammed the Japanese boat hard, dropped back, and rammed him again. The police were on standby next time the two New Zealand boats went out.

There were signs of a more relaxed approach in the warm-up regatta held in Auckland last week. The Italians, who fly in their own food for their cooks to prepare, held a party and invited crews from the rival syndicates. To be seen fraternising with the enemy in the past would have been a guillotining offence, but here was everyone happily mixing, including members of the arch enemy, the defending Team New Zealand.

A softer touch is also promised by the only woman skipper in the self- styled City of Sails, San Francisco's Chicago-born Dawn Riley. She has local Olympian Leslie Egnot calling some of the shots. Riley neither gives nor looks for any quarter for her American True crew but says she is planning a more open approach in her compound. "We don't want it to be like a fortress," she says, "So we will be building a viewing deck for the public. We want the atmosphere to be friendly."

The Italians can afford to be generous. Backed by the Italian fashion house of Prada, they are said to be the best-funded of the 10 likely challenges, including five from the US. But Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli is smiling all the way to the bank since he bought a 9.5 per cent stake in Gucci last November and then sold it for a near-NZ$200m (pounds 66.2m) profit in January to Louis Vuitton.

And he also has employed Doug Peterson, who knows exactly how the Kiwis won the Cup in San Diego, having been on their design team. The challengers may be united in the wish to defeat New Zealand now but they are also squaring up for their own battles, even though the first Louis Vuitton race is seven months away.

There are also splits in Team New Zealand, and between TNZ and the sailing community in Auckland. One overseas sailor claimed he had uncovered, to his horror and disbelief, the "Kiwi life list". On it are people who are now outsiders as far as TNZ is concerned. For life.

The city itself has invested about NZ$50m into infrastructure which they hope they will be able to use twice because of a successful defence, and are following up with another NZ$1.5m to smooth the path of the Volvo Race in 2001. There is a fear, however, that, if they are all finished in time, there will be a huge oversupply of apartments. But the Cup has given a kick-start to both attitudes and interest and provides the focal point of Viaduct Basin's America's Cup Village. This includes a visit of over 100 super-yachts and the development of 35 restaurants and bars for them and for every visiting Kiwi around the basin, from which the world can watch the yachts entering and leaving each morning and evening.

The trouble for the Kiwis is they have no defender trials, so they have to be content with limbering up for four months before taking to the water themselves. Still, no one is betting heavily against them.

And if the frenzy is all too much, then it is a short plane ride to Blenheim on the north-west of South Island. There you can find a gillie called Tony Orman and chase some very elusive brown trout, washing away the frustration in the evening with some Cloudy Bay Chardonnay from the local Marlborough wine fields.

The colour of the water on the racecourses of the Hauraki Gulf will be a lot more murky.