Yacht racing is generally perceived as a genteel sport, but that's not the case with the upcoming America's Cup. Insults and allegations of bogus yacht clubs have clouded the skies as the billionaire backers of the two race teams face off in what has become a nasty legal battle with more twists than a sailor's knot.
In the latest salvo, a New York court is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday involving the timing of the upcoming 33rd America's Cup. One team wants to keep the February 2010 race date, while the other is fighting to move it to May of that year.
The trophy is currently held by Team Alinghi, owned by Ernesto Bertarelli, an Italian-Swiss heir to the Serono biotech company fortune. Challenging Alinghi for the cup is BMW Oracle Racing, owned by Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
Ellison challenged Bertarelli for the 2010 cup back in 2007. That's when things started to unravel. Bertarelli opted to race another team, and San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, which backs Ellison's BMW Oracle team, sued.
"What people don't understand about the cup is it's a challenger-driven event," Bruce Knecht, a maritime writer and sailor, tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "That is, if you hold the cup, you can just hold it until someone comes along and says, 'I challenge you for the cup.' Of course, challenges come regularly, and to organize the cup and set the rules, one is designated the 'challenger of record,' " Knecht explains.
Once that designation is made, the holder of the cup and the challenger negotiate the rules for the next competition.
Knecht says it's not uncommon to choose another challenger. For example, he says, the New York Yacht Club, which held the America's Cup for 132 years, chose a challenger it thought was relatively friendly and negotiated rules in which there was a degree of home-court advantage.
"What Bertarelli did in 2007 was he picked a club that was not just friendly, it was almost sort of a fiction," Knecht says. "It was a club that had never had a race, it did not have members, it didn't have yachts. It's not what most people would think of as being a yacht club. And importantly, yacht clubs are the only entity that can challenge for the cup."
The America's Cup was established in 1887 by a Deed of Gift, following an 1851 regatta won by the race's namesake yacht, America.
"The Deed of Gift defined a yacht club by one thing: It said they have to have — although the word is 'having' — an annual yacht race. And this is what the whole legal thing turned on," Knecht says.
Ellison's Golden Gate Yacht Club's lawsuit questioned the legitimacy of the yacht club Bertarelli selected as the challenger of record for the 33rd America's Cup.
"In May 2008, the [New York state] supreme court said that Ellison's challenge to the bogus yacht club was in fact a legitimate challenge, and it named Ellison's yacht club the challenger of record," Knecht says.
Two months later, an appeals court reversed that decision, re-establishing Bertarelli's original choice for challenger. But that ruling was later overturned by a higher appellate court. And that's what stands today, with Ellison's yacht club designated the challenger of record.
That court also did one other thing — it said the race should happen 10 months from its final ruling, in February of 2010. Bertarelli's team balked, leading to Thursday's hearing.
Regardless of when the cup is held, it's clear the rivalry between the two billionaires will be in full sail.