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Sailing's Public Spats – Do They Clear The Air Or Muddy The Waters?

6th November 2021
Tom Kneen's JPK 11.80 Sunrise winning the 2021 Fastnet Race at Cherbourg. As a loyal Royal Western YC member, he had voted in favour of retaining the traditional Fastnet finish at Plymouth, but it's possible that it was the extra distance to the Cherbourg finish which played a key role in Sunrise's clear win
Tom Kneen's JPK 11.80 Sunrise winning the 2021 Fastnet Race at Cherbourg. As a loyal Royal Western YC member, he had voted in favour of retaining the traditional Fastnet finish at Plymouth, but it's possible that it was the extra distance to the Cherbourg finish which played a key role in Sunrise's clear win

Would Tom Kneen's JPK 11.80 Sunrise have still won the Rolex Fastnet Race 2021 if it had been sailed on the old course, with Plymouth rather than Cherbourg as the finish? Imponderable it may be, but it's a question of renewed interest as the row rumbles on about the in-race shortening of the recent Rolex Middle Sea Race 2021.

This course shortening was done in view of a developing northeasterly storm which soon made the harbour-mouth finish dangerously impossible for smaller boats still at sea. But as everyone is now well aware, it meant that Sunrise – already finished and in port along with two-thirds of the fleet – had to make do with second overall, after looking for a while as though she was about to achieve the magnificent double of Fastnet and Middle Sea overall victories in one season, achieved with such style that it would all have been done and dusted within the space of three months.

But the unhappy outcome instead caused an almighty row, and some of us sought shelter in trying to analyse it from a different point of view. The affable but very keen and obviously extremely effective Tom Kneen is a loyal member of the Royal Western Yacht Club in Plymouth, and he happily admitted that in the RORC members' poll about the change to the Fastnet course, he had voted in favour of the traditional finish in Plymouth rather than race the extra 90 miles to a new big-scale welcome in Cherbourg.

The traditional Fastnet finish at Plymouth and the 2021 version with the finish at Cherbourg. It's possible that the extra 90 miles to Cherbourg gave the Plymouth-base Sunrise her overall win.The traditional Fastnet finish at Plymouth and the 2021 version with the finish at Cherbourg. It's possible that the extra 90 miles to Cherbourg gave the Plymouth-base Sunrise her overall win.

Ironically, it may well be that the extra 90 miles "imposition" gave Sunrise her clearcut win. She had been reasonably well-placed but not winning at earlier stages, thus it was the lengthened final stage after the Bishop Rock and up the middle of the English Channel in a private breeze – a feat repeated with almost equal success by Ronan O Siochru's Desert Star from Dun Laoghaire – which saw Sunrise get so clearly into the Glitter Zone.

But having been given a portal to overall success by the long-planned extension of the Fastnet Race, Sunrise then found the door to a Middle Sea repeat slammed shut in her face by the sudden imposition of a course shortening. Some may raise their eyes to heaven and say: "The Lord Giveth, the Lord Taketh Away". But the more grounded have raised – not for the first time – the question of whether well-meaning amateurs should have ultimate control of the running of any major event in which the combined long-term expense of involvement by a huge fleet – whether amateur or professional – is a figure running into tens and probably hundreds of millions of euro.

The crew of Sunrise celebrating what looked like becoming a remarkable double at their finish of the Middle Sea Race 2021 in Malta. Photo: North SailsThe crew of Sunrise celebrating what looked like becoming a remarkable double at their finish of the Middle Sea Race 2021 in Malta. Photo: North Sails

Instinctively, many of us will incline to the support of the enthusiastic amateurs. But the harsher judges will quote Damon Runyon who, on enquiring about the activities of one of his Manhattan acquaintances, was told that: "He is doing the best he can", to which Runyon responded that he found this to be a very over-crowded profession.

VOLUNTARY ADMINISTRATORS

The voluntary race administrators in the Royal Malta Yacht Club came in for huge flak and this week issued what is in effect a mea culpa and a promise to do better in future. But it's going to rumble on like the Palme volcano for some time yet, and just yesterday Peter Ryan, the Chairman of ISORA, suggested they should now declare two sets of results as though they'd been running two races of different lengths in parallel all along, which if nothing else would lead to dancing in the streets in the Silversmiths' Quarter in Valetta.

And there have been suggestions that the RORC "should consider its position in relation to the Middle Sea Race", which is polite-speak for saying that the RORC should at least think about withdrawing its active support from what is essentially the Royal Malta YC's premier event. But nothing happens in a vacuum, and people making this extreme proposal are failing to take note that there's a turf war (ridiculous to have a turf war at sea, but there you are) going on between the ORC and the IRC measurement systems.

One of the starts from the harbour in the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2021. The wind was already from the northeast, and a severe storm – which caused fatalities in nearby Sicily – made the harbour entrance extremely dangerous by the time the smaller boats were finishing.One of the starts from the harbour in the Rolex Middle Sea Race 2021. The wind was already from the northeast, and a severe storm – which caused fatalities in nearby Sicily – made the harbour entrance extremely dangerous by the time the smaller boats were finishing.

The IRC is very much identified with the RORC, while the ORC has its own setup. And even as quiet territorial expansions are taking place on various fronts with new events emanating from both camps - the interesting Finnish-connected RORC race in the Baltic is one example – a proposed marriage between the World Championships of both systems appears to have resulted in the IRC being left stranded at the altar without a word of explanation.

In this febrile atmosphere, were the RORC to dump on the Royal Malta, it's always possible that the ORC's organisation might step into the breach, for the Middle Sea Race now has a momentum and vitality of its own, and it will happen each year regardless of politicking ashore.

A public spat online was inevitable, and in time we'll be persuaded that it has cleared the air, for that's the way these things happen even if various waters are temporarily muddied. But in global sailing, however big the row, it will only have been in the ha'penny place by comparison with the controversies which are now in the DNA of the America's Cup, which has been a joy and delight for m'learned friends ever since the original hand-written Deed of Gift – inkily scratched on parchment in 1857 – went on to become a Protocol in 1882 which was then revised in 1887.

PROTOCOL FATIGUE

In Ireland, we may well be suffering from Protocol Fatigue these days, but regardless of our feelings, the long-awaited Protocol for the next staging of the America's Cup – AC37 – will be revealed on Wednesday, November 17th by defenders Team New Zealand and the Challenger of Record, Royal Yacht Squadron Racing Ltd.

Doubtless, there'll be many bumps in the road between now and then, just as there have been bumps to the point of chasms in getting to where they are now. It's an uneven progress, with the professional/amateur divide still involved to such an extent that when the New York Yacht Club recently announced that they were "passing" on direct club participation this time around, in a subsequent statement the New Zealanders described the NYYC Commodore as a "Corinthian".

The New York Yacht Club's summer base of Harbour Court, Rhode Island. The Kiwi's description of the Commodore as "Corinthian" did not quite seem to have the usual complimentary intent.The New York Yacht Club's summer base of Harbour Court, Rhode Island. The Kiwi's description of the Commodore as "Corinthian" did not quite seem to have the usual complimentary intent.

This is normally a term of approval, but there was a distinct feeling that approval was not the intention in this case. In addition to the increasingly complex legalities, it made things personal, and that is not a good place to be in a situation like this.

But then this "situation" has become a world of its own. So much so, in fact, that the America's Cup legalities have provided the makings of its own department in the University of Auckland, and it has already graduated its own PhD in the shape of Dr Hamish Ross, who published his latest findings this week. You've probably read it already, but even so, it's a good browse for a November Saturday morning:

LEGAL OPINION

In eleven days' time, the Protocol for the 37th America's Cup is due to be revealed, eight months after Royal Yacht Squadron Racing Limited filed a notice challenge under the Deed of Gift.

What can we expect and what is likely to be left unanswered?

Sources close to the Defender indicate that the all-important venue selection is yet to be made and may not be announced until as late as March 2022. This will not be welcome news to the Challenger of Record, who will be getting impatient. It has a right to fall back onto the Deed default match terms if relations become strained, which will likely result in a commercial black hole.

Given the selected venue may impact the yacht to be raced, publication of the Class Rule may be similarly delayed, although it was at least agreed last March, that it would be in the AC75 class used in Auckland. There are always refinements to be made. If there is a meaningful push towards costs savings, as has been announced, look for more supplied or common design elements in the same way as the foil systems were supplied for AC36 in Auckland.

Unfortunately, the Deed requirement that the competing yachts must be "constructed in the country" of the respective competing yacht clubs puts the brakes on what could be achieved. In the past, this requirement has sometimes been interpreted rather liberally focusing on the hull, but many would agree that the Deed probably only requires an assembly of components, which can be sourced from anywhere, to create a yacht.
The "construction in-country" term of the Deed has never been fully tested in a court or jury, although the issue was on the table at the end of the 2010 match. Expect sailing restrictions and launch dates to remain to limit the advantages of well-funded competitors.

Dr Hamish Ross took his PhD at Auckland University in America's Cup law.Dr Hamish Ross took his PhD at Auckland University in America's Cup law.

Commercial rights will likely largely remain as they have been since Valencia 2007. Will there be a profit-sharing mechanism between competitors as in 2007 and 2013, if there is a financial surplus? It would seem a major venue financial windfall would be unlikely in the current economic climate.

Timing of the match, and the preceding challenger series may be difficult to fix without a venue having been decided. Don't expect to see firm dates yet. The Deed has hemisphere restrictions limiting the times when a match can be held in each hemisphere. There are seasonal weather and oceanographic factors to be considered at any venue.

Additionally, there is the timing of other events to consider. Few would want to take on a head-on commercial and media clash with the Olympics or the Football World Cup, which traditionally sucks out a lot of sports fan eyeballs and commercial sponsorship from the sports sponsorship market.

A profitable venture – the America's Cup 2007 at Valencia. Ireland's Marcus Hutchinson was on the management team, and the event showed a profit.A profitable venture – the America's Cup 2007 at Valencia. Ireland's Marcus Hutchinson was on the management team, and the event showed a profit.

What other events will be held before the start of the challenger series? Expect a warmup regatta or two. There may be a concessionary warm-up regatta in Auckland on the table to try to calm local waters. But these regattas all cost money, a loss of valuable time and never raise enough money for them to be self-funding when an effort is said to be made to reduce costs.

More chance they will be held in the selected venue than holding a global circuit like Sail GP. A defender will always want an opportunity to check-in against the challengers before the match to try and limit any surprises. Expect Sail GP to actively look into holding an event or two in Auckland during the America's Cup match, if Auckland is not the selected venue!

What will prospective challengers be looking for? When will they see the Class Rule? How long will they have to design, build and test a yacht? How much of a design head start have the Defender and the Challenger of Record given themselves? What will it cost them to compete? Can they hire the design, boatbuilding and sailing talent needed?

This will put the nationality rule into sharp focus– can they get approvals from the Defender as an "emerging nation"? Where will it be held? Don't expect billionaires to line up for an unattractive venue with security risks. What advertising space on the yacht do they have to sell to their sponsors and what space will be taken by the event and in what product categories? Will Prada or Louis Vuitton return as a sponsor? Above all, is there a chance to win or is it simply too stacked up against us?

Expect entry fees to remain the same or increase. US$3,350,000 plus a bond of US$1m was the cheapest entry last time. Expect the challenges to again contribute towards the costs of the challenger selection series unless a sponsor agrees to fund it as did Prada last time.

Finally, who gets to amend the Protocol and the Class Rules? Can anyone competitor block a change? Will there be a tyranny of the majority or simply a Defender and Challenger of Record dictatorship?
Drafting a Protocol involves a delicate balance of many issues both sporting and commercial. Get it wrong and it could be 2007-2010 all over again. Nail it, and it will be back to the big America's Cup heydays of Fremantle 1986-87 or Valencia 2007.

INTERESTING TIMES

For the top end of the international sailing world, the next ten days will be extremely interesting, as we can only guess at the global wheeling and dealing and drafting going on behind the scenes. And when the AC37 Protocol is published, we can be quite sure there'll be controversy, which is meat and drink to the communications industry in all its forms.

In fact, controversy is the gift that just keeps on giving. For even after you've agreed a settlement on whatever is causing the current high profile controversy, you can then go on to have a controversy about how the word "controversy" should be properly pronounced… 

Published in W M Nixon
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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