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A dramatic ruling could spawn America's Cup boats with golden-age grandeur

That Quaint 19th-century sporting ritual known as the America's Cup may suddenly have been swept into the 21st century. Following a 19-page ruling by Justice Carmen Beauchamp Ciparick of New York State Supreme Court last week, the boats that would be permitted to sail for the next America's Cup would make the 1987 models look like just that—models. The decision in favor of a challenge from New Zealand opens the way for match racing on a scale not seen in the America's Cup in 50 years, not since the grand era of the J boats, with their acres of billowing sail and their crews of 40 men, came to an end in the late 1930s. But should such a Cup series actually come to pass, it would be anything but a throwback to the past, because the technology would be space-age and the spectacle could rival anything in modern sport.

The question before the court was whether the San Diego Yacht Club (SDYC), the current holder, or trustee, of the Cup, was required, under the terms of the America's Cup Deed of Gift, to accept the challenge of New Zealand's Michael Fay, 38, an investment banker in Auckland. Fay was the principal money man behind Kiwi Magic, the fiberglass Cinderella boat of the 1987 Cup in Australia.

Fay's latest challenge, presented to the commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club on July 17, five months after the end of the '87 Cup series, startled the tight little world of 12-meter racers by proposing to do away with 12-meter yachts in America's Cup competition.

Fay's bid was made on behalf of the Mercury Bay Boating Club of Whitianga, on the Coromandel Peninsula northeast of Auckland, an organization whose membership has been described as "a ragtag group of 60 weekend boaties" and whose files are kept in a decrepit secondhand car. The challenge specified a two-out-of-three race series to be sailed next June and announced that New Zealand's entry would measure 90 feet at the waterline. In overall length at deck level, that translates to something between 110 and 130 feet. Speculation in New Zealand has it that the mast of Fay's new boat will be too high—perhaps as much as 160 feet—to pass under the Auckland Harbor Bridge and that the crew will number between 30 and 40. By contrast, a 12-meter yacht, the class used in America's Cup competition since 1958, is approximately 65 feet long, stem to stern, has a 90-foot mast and carries a crew of 11.

San Diego's initial response to Fay's challenge was to ignore it and to proceed with an announcement in September that the next America's Cup defense would be in San Diego in 1991 in 12-meters. Fay said a strict reading of the deed of gift, the document that has governed the terms of the competition for 100 years, supported his challenge. San Diego asked the court to declare Fay's challenge invalid and to alter the deed to conform with recent practice. Since the early 1960s the practice has been for the holder of the Cup, first the New York Yacht Club and, after '83, the Royal Perth Yacht Club, to announce the boat, the time and the place for the next defense before the conclusion of the current competition or immediately afterward. Since 1970, the first year the defender accepted more than one challenge, all challenges have been treated as if they had arrived simultaneously. Until now the challengers, by choosing not to exercise their right to disagree, have consented to the conditions set by the defender.

Last week the court came down on the side of New Zealand. (The case was in New York because the deed had been established there in 1887 by George Schuyler, the last surviving owner of the yacht America.) San Diego had failed, wrote the judge, "to justify making truly radical and fundamental changes in the deed...."

Now the fun begins. Although the defender has lost the first battle, the war is barely under way, and the SDYC isn't without options. The deed of gift requires the challenger to specify the waterline length of the boat it proposes to challenge with and allows it to choose the date of the match. When the parties can't agree on the conditions of the match, the defender must be given at least 10 months notice to meet the challenge at a site of the defender's choosing. Even if the SDYC should decide not to appeal (the club had scheduled a news conference for Dec. 2 at which it would presumably announce its intentions) and to accept the challenge on Fay's terms, it might still try to thwart Fay's intentions. It could change the venue of the races, possibly to Hawaii, where high winds could put Fay's so-called supermaxi, which was designed for San Diego's light winds, at a disadvantage, or it could meet the challenge of New Zealand's big single-hull design with an equally large multihull boat—a catamaran or trimaran. Existing racing catamarans that measure 80 feet achieve speeds of 22 to 24 knots, a good 10 knots faster than monohulls of the same length. Roger Marshall, a naval architect in Jamestown, R.I., estimates that a catamaran with a 90-foot waterline might go as fast as 35 to 40 knots—so fast, he says, it would never need to set a spinnaker. Whether these design variations would be legal in America's Cup competition, however, might require further judicial interpretation.

Although the deed says that San Diego must deal with challenges in the order they are received (and San Diego now claims, belatedly, that a British and an Australian challenge actually preceded Fay's), Fay has said he is willing to compete with would-be challengers from other nations in an elimination series before the Cup races. Dennis Conner, the victorious U.S. skipper of 1987, who received word of the decision while in Australia on business, is skeptical, to put it mildly. "It will be a race between America and New Zealand with the rest of the world shut out," said Conner. "I don't believe Michael Fay wants an international series, anyway. He doesn't want competition. That's why he's done this. He wants to win the Cup any way he can."

"If we went anywhere else [besides San Diego], it would be with the idea of guaranteeing an America's Cup for San Diego in 1991," says Malin Burnham, CEO of Sail America, the organization managing the defense. "If we have to race Fay in 1988, we want to be sure we can put his challenge away with little trouble. We don't want to do anything to risk San Diego losing the 1991 series."

In a sense, last week's decision was a case of Conner's chickens, hatched in Australia a year ago, coming home to roost. It was Conner, abetted by Burnham and the Sail America syndicate, who questioned the legality of Kiwi Magic's fiberglass hull, and Conner himself who said, before the world yachting press, "Why would you [build a fiberglass boat] unless you wanted to cheat?" Conner won the Cup, but with that one rhetorical question he also won the undying enmity of Fay and a lot of other New Zealanders.

While it's safe to assume there was at least a trace of mischief in Fay's challenge at the start, since July his concept has taken on a life of its own. Fay isn't the only heir to the tradition of such America's Cup plungers as Thomas Lipton, T.O.M. Sopwith and Harold Vanderbilt. Australia's Alan Bond and Britain's Peter de Savary responded to the prospect of an America's Cup sailed in big boats like speckled trout rising to a dry fly. Bond, who had tired of the 12-meter game after winning the Cup in 1983 and who sold his 12-meter fleet to a Japanese businessman earlier this year, has put designer Ben Lexcen to work on a supermaxi, aiming for an August 1988 launch. He also proposed a supermaxi series with an $8 million prize for late 1988, whether Fay's America's Cup challenge is accepted or not.

De Savary, who had already formed his Blue Arrow syndicate anticipating a 12-meter challenge, added more staffers and is now at work on a wildly revolutionary concept, a 120-footer with an articulating, or adjustable, wing mast and solid wing sail that rises 135 feet above the deck.

De Savary backed Victory '83 in Newport in 1983 and bailed out the financially strapped British challenger Lionheart in '80, but he sat out the '87 Cup. "The San Diegans made the mistake of losing sight of the main objective," de Savary told The Times of London recently. "They spent the first five months arguing among themselves how they were going to make money out of this event...instead of focusing on defending the trophy, and deserve all they are getting now."

Needless to say there was joy in Kiwiville last week. "Here in New Zealand we've set Cup fever off again," said Fay. "We've got 3½ million Kiwis saying, 'Right, now we're going to have another go of it.' "

Even before the court's ruling in Fay's favor, work had gone forward on New Zealand's superboat. A crew of 30 is working a two-shift, seven-days-a-week schedule, with the launching planned for March and delivery to San Diego in May. In preparation for a switch of venue, however, Fay's representatives recently have been scouting dock space in Hawaii. Fay says that his white-hulled boat, designed by Bruce Farr and constructed of fiberglass and of carbon-fiber composites, has three times the volume of a 12-meter and four times the sail area and that "it will blow the socks off them."

The New Zealand group has taken to calling its creation a K boat, an allusion to the J boats of the 1930s, which were comparable in size. In fact, however, the J's already existed as a class with a strict measurement rule when they were adopted for use in the America's Cup. The K boats will be an open class, their single-masted design limited by the only measurement spelled out in the deed of gift—a maximum waterline length of 90 feet. All other aspects of their design—the rigging, the sail area, the size of the crew—would be limited only by the forces of nature and the imagination of their architects. Britton Chance, an American naval architect who was a member of the three-man team that designed Conner's '87 winner, Stars & Stripes, says the new boats offer "the most exciting possibilities in yacht design in 100 years."

In San Diego confusion reigned in the wake of the court ruling. As usually happens when sport is the issue, the politicians were the most confused of all. They saw what they had perceived to be an estimated $1 billion civic bonanza evaporating before their eyes, and their howls could be heard all the way to Tijuana. "We've won the right to host the regatta in 1991," said Mayor Maureen O'Connor. "I think the ruling is un-American." Said supervisor Brian Bilbray, "I feel like my guts have been ripped out. It's sad when what goes on in a courtroom will reverse what went on on the water."

In fact, what the SDYC won, thanks to the efforts of Conner and his Sail America syndicate, was the right to defend the America's Cup. Nothing more. And the only thing that may have been reversed, for the moment, is the direction Cup campaigns have taken in recent years toward ever more extravagant expenditures of time and money in pursuit of fractions of a knot of boat speed. Fay spent a relatively modest $11 million to compete in the 1987 Cup in 12-meters. He contends that even with a bigger, more expensive boat, a shorter campaign will cut his costs in half.

"To our way of thinking, the fatal flaw in 12-meter development is when you start talking about $50 million budgets," Fay told SI's Duncan Brantley. "The boats cost $1 to $1.5 million. People are obviously not going to build 50 boats. What it has become is a massive investment in technology and technology research."

If San Diego had not fiddled while Fay burned with impatience, if the yacht club and Sail America had not squandered more than five months in fratricidal wrangling over who was to run the show in 1991, next year would be the second of a four-year campaign of meticulous, Conner-style preparation for the defense. Now '88 promises fireworks—legal fireworks if San Diego goes back to court, technological fireworks if the supermaxi challenge stands.

"I'm not saying this is a guaranteed formula for the next 136 years," says Fay. "But what we have here is a commonsense approach for San Diego in 1988. I think it's a guaranteed winner, with how exciting these boats will be and the interest they will generate around the world. After that, you let the Cup take its next natural step. It always has, and it always will."



If New Zealand actually forces a Cup defense in supermaxis, design possibilities are virtually limitless. Naval archictect Marshall offers three variations (from left): a conventional 130-foot hull and rig with crew rack and centerboard, a trimaran with a solidwing sail and a monohull with outriggers. Conner's 12-meter champ of 1987 would be dwarfed by these—and this 1930s J Boat.



Conner brought the Cup home last February; now he's steaming over the court decision.


Fay (left), who says that super-maxis need not be ruinously expensive, has this one abuilding.



[See caption above.]



Conner cooled Kiwi Magic (right) in January but got New Zealanders hot with his talk.