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America’s Cup Hosting: Barcelona’s Bazooka Bid Blows Cork Harbour Out of the Water

26th March 2022
Barcelona waterfront
Barcelona, an ancient port city whose minimal tidal range encourages a specially close interaction with the sea while providing rapid access to the proposed America’s Cup racing area in nearby open water

The revelation that the mighty Spanish sailing resort and port city of Barcelona has been secretly putting together a powerful hosting bid for the 2024 America’s Cup in the heart of vibrant Catalonia has been bruising news down Cork Harbour way.

Indeed, the more sensitive in the Munster capital could be forgiven for having a feeling of being used, of being a patsy in the global process involving the murderous cut-and-thrust of international sports politics.

For there’s something specially poisonous about sports politics. Everyday politics is bound to be devious and messy, as it’s dealing with messy everyday life. But sports politics is ultimately about the exploitation of people’s beloved games, activities, recreations and hobby interests. In that exploitation, advantage is taken of such enthusiasts – “fans”, if you insist – when they’re at their most emotionally vulnerable.

It’s something which happens right across the board. Even the most tunnel-visioned Irish sailing enthusiast will have been aware that at mid-week, a combined bid by Britain and Ireland appeared to succeed in being selected as hosts for international football’s 2028 UEFA Cup.

But while this laudable joint effort was doubtless put together in the most thorough-going way, it seemed that we had been allocated the shared hosting of this supposedly prestigious sporting event simply because no-one else was interested in doing so, which makes any reasonable observer think immediately of pigs and pokes, closely followed by cans and worms.

Despite success afloat, the America’s Cup’s relationship with Auckland and New Zealand politics was becoming toxicDespite success afloat, the America’s Cup’s relationship with Auckland and New Zealand politics was becoming toxic

Since then, the waters have become even murkier, with Russia and Turkey turfing in some sort of last-minute bids. Yet although the scale of international football tournaments is – at a political and commercial level – way beyond the peaks of international sailing as represented by the America’s Cup and the Olympics, there’s a particular sort of nastiness in all sports which very quickly comes centre-stage as various crunch decision points approach in international situations of this type.

Decision day on 31 March

With the selection of the venue for the America’s Cup 2024 supposedly due for announcement on or before next Thursday31 March, sailors in Ireland find themselves emotionally and reputationally involved through the fact that a small but powerful group of mainly Cork-based top-levels sailors have been pitching Cork Harbour as a potential choice.

This is something that would inevitably involve considerable expenditure of taxpayers’ money in the provision of facilities, and therefore is – and has been – very much a matter of legitimate public interest and scrutiny as Cork finds itself lined up against Malaga and the mighty new blast from Barcelona, with Jeddah in Saudi Arabia being well-funded and more than willing to get in on the act even if international geopolitics is firmly against it.

All of this is the perfect recipe for the kind of openly aggressive turmoil which is usually absent from our normally rather private sport. And it reached a fresh height in recent days with a posting on the international site Sailweb, which went straight for the jugular:

Emirates Team New Zealand boss Grant Dalton walked into a maelstrom as he arrived in Europe to inspect the short-listed venues for the defence of the 37th America’s Cup.

In the short time he has been in Europe he must have realised that the attitude to the America’s Cup is very different to that in New Zealand, even before you add a Russian military invasion force pounding a free, democratic country into rubble, with three million people already forced to flee across Europe.

The America’s Cup has a very different status here to that which he is used to in New Zealand. Unlike the New Zealand media, the press in Europe almost totally ignores the event. And where the next America’s Cup ends up in Europe is not high on the news agenda . . . including the sports news.

A determined and skilled negotiator – Grant Dalton with the America’s CupA determined and skilled negotiator – Grant Dalton with the America’s Cup

Even the Brits, who started the whole shebang by losing a race round the Isle of Wight - and after 170 years are no closer to winning than when they started - have little interest, especially for the horse-trading phase that is presently going on.

These factors are a problem for any potential venue involved in the bidding, as they cannot raise any enthusiasm from their governments to shell out for a commercial sailing race, especially one with teams backed by a bunch of billionaires who have more than enough spare cash to fund the whole affair if they so wished.

Not that New Zealand does not have its own economic and social problems as it recovers from Covid Pandemic lockdown, and politics and the America’s Cup are never far apart in New Zealand.

That is why Dalton is on this swing through Europe, desperately seeking a venue and the funds to put his team back on the road. After the New Zealand government baulked at funding another expensive Cup defence, he decided that the Europeans would be ready and willing to pick up the tab.

Unfortunately, real wars, rather than PR pumped-up sporting conflicts, come at a cost of both human lives and widespread economic mayhem, and some difficult personal choices. It is this mayhem and human suffering that is bankrolling the Russian war machine and filling the coffers of the Arab oil-rich states who are keen to clean their blood-stained largesse at such events.

Perhaps Mr Dalton will choose not to see the connection between all this and the backers of the bids from Spanish cities. Or perhaps he is just so desperate to put two fingers up to the New Zealand government, he will take the money. . . after all, it’s not his war!

However, the New Zealand government has shown more responsibility, recognising the cost in human suffering, and barring Russian and Belarus super yachts, ships, and aircraft from entering its waters or airspace.

Yet Dalton has a reputation as a hard-headed, win-at-all-costs team manager. And with four Cup wins, Team New Zealand is the most successful team in America’s Cup history.

But whether such a compromised deal would go down well with some of the ETNZ sailors, who have already expressed disquiet at negotiating with some powerful organisations – even at one step removed – remains to be seen.

The America’s Cup has been somewhat outmanoeuvred and overtaken by the upstart SailGP circuit, which is just about to stage its second $1 million final in San Francisco, with ten national teams expected to compete at nine international venues in Series 3, starting this May.

The “upstart” SailGP circuit – seen here in action in Sydney – has been stealing the venerable America’s Cup’s thunderThe “upstart” SailGP circuit – seen here in action in Sydney – has been stealing the venerable America’s Cup’s thunder

Nevertheless the Auld Mug still has a 170-year back-story and gravitas on its side, even if it is looking a bit tired. It is this back-story that some sailing commentators believe can pull in the money and the big corporate names to allow the America’s Cup to reinvent itself . . .

More responsible heads may wonder if Mr Dalton shouldn’t just make peace with his countryman, pick up his ball and head back home.

But having come this far, possibly that’s a step too far . . . It’s easier to follow the money.

Where does this leave Cork and Ireland?

“Ouch!” as you might well say, and “ouch” again. Yet we’ve felt it’s right to post this in full – with due acknowledgement to Sailweb – as sailing in Ireland is a cosy little world in which, when outside involvement intrudes, we like to think we close ranks while at the same time somehow managing to persuade some obsessed people that they’re in danger of making a holy show of themselves in the delusion that they’re doing us all the most enormous favour in promoting a certain course of action.

In fact, the excessively enthusiastic over-selling of Cork as a possible America’s Cup location might do longterm harm. Certainly Cork Harbour is a hugely successful sailing venue when it sticks to the knitting, and does what it can do very well. Its local sailing and club racing is at a level of involvement and egalitarianism other places can only envy. And Volvo Cork Week is another instance of Cork sailing being on top of its game while attracting international involvement.

Cork Harbour at its incomparable best in high summer. But it’s a long way from any berths in the heart of Cork city to the proposed America’s Cup racing area here in the near foregroundCork Harbour at its incomparable best in high summer. But it’s a long way from any berths in the heart of Cork city to the proposed America’s Cup racing area here in the near foreground

Within the Cork Week format, the introduction of the Beaufort Cup series for services crews was a stroke of genius – we can only hope that the pandemic is sufficiently under control by July for frontline medical service crews to be eligible for inclusion.

Being realistic about Cork Harbour

But in order to best fulfill its potential, Cork Harbour has to be realistic about its geographical and meteorological situation, and the social structures which underly its thriving sailing scene. Its meteorological reality is grounded in the fact that it is much further from the Equator than any other past or present America’s Cup venue. The fact is that Cork is on European weather’s Atlantic frontier, and while we certainly can get quite prolonged periods of summery weather, we’re talking Irish summer here – we may well like it, but it’s only a pale version of conditions further south.

Thus, when the initial proposals for Cork’s requirements for a realistic America’s Cup venue bid were aired, we were told that new state-of-the-art berthing would be required in Cork for at least 70 superyachts.

In “Plan 2” for Cork, the superyacht berthing originally envisaged for Rushbrook was moved to the proposed new facility in the heart of the cityIn “Plan 2” for Cork, the superyacht berthing originally envisaged for Rushbrook was moved to the proposed new facility in the heart of the city

The thought of seventy superyachts in a quintessentially Irish setting would make anyone feel slightly nauseous. Superyachts are indeed often beautiful creations, and technically fascinating with it. But they’re big boys’ toys, and some of the big boys who play with them have a personal air of menace which is simply horrific such that, for all their beauty, in certain cases superyachts stink.

But even if they were all smelling of roses, why would we need to make new berthing provisions for superyachts? The answer is that such berths are generally not needed here, as any Irish owner of a yacht above a certain size – whether sail or power – tends to keep her in the Mediterranean in summer and maybe move her to the Caribbean in winter, while those internationally-owned vessels which do venture north will only take in Ireland as a few ports of call while heading for the more spectacular destinations of the Norwegian fjords.

Cork city, yachtport?

Be that as it may, after the initial negative public reaction to the cost of the proposed America’s Cup’s provision of massively upgraded facilities at Rushbrook dockyard near Cobh – which would have been within convenient distance of the planned race area in open water south of Roche’s Point – the Cork AC venue promoters came up with the idea of purpose-built berthing right in the heart of Cork city itself, arguing that it would be more cost-effective, and it would respond more directly to supposed public interest within the city.

Plan 2 – the proposed AC base in Cork cityPlan 2 – the proposed AC base in Cork city

But the first thing we have to remember is that in any provision of new waterfront facilities in Cork Harbour, costs are much higher than in the Mediterranean because of the tides, even where the proposed facilities were mainly based on floating pontoons. The average tidal range in Cork Harbour is four metres (13ft). In Barcelona, by contrast – where they already have an extensive selection of harbours – the average tidal range is 0.3 metres (1ft).

Then, too, the harbours of Barcelona give rapid access to the racing area, whereas the frankly crazy idea of locating the AC boats and their service yards in the heart of Cork city was massively inconvenient. For sure, there is nothing more delightful than a mini-voyage from the Cork city marina down the harbour, either to the open sea or to one of the many little ports of call around Cork Harbour itself. But doing it on a daily basis with the awkward AC boats and their support fleets would be irksome in the extreme.

However, the ultimate objection to Cork as an AC venue was something much more visceral. This was the instinctive rejection which lay in the fact that there would be no Irish team involved – indeed, it was highly unlikely that anybody Irish would be sailing on any team, even with the most liberal interpretation of nationality requirements.

The Irish way in sport

Such a situation is just not the way we do our most popular sports, whether nationally or internationally. In several sports, Ireland is currently on a mighty roll at home and abroad at the moment, yet our international stars in horse racing, rugby, golf, boxing and whatever are of us and among us, while the Gaelic Athletic Association’s benevolent social role is globally unique.

From time to time, we do try to host events for sports with no significant Irish participation presence at the sharp end. But they become more like freak shows, as our heart just isn’t in it. And in the case of the America’s Cup, while Barcelona may be happy enough to provide facilities afloat and ashore with the workers to operate them, somehow it doesn’t seem quite right to be imposing such menial roles on the people around the harbour which is the home to the world’s most senior yacht club.

But in any case, whereas the proposition for Cork Harbour came slap-bang up against local and national opposition related directly to the current economic situation and the doubtful benefits of huge public capital expenditure in a time of rocketing costs, the current situation of Barcelona could have been tailor-made for hosting the 37th America’s Cup in 2024.

With strong support from the Catalan government, the port of Barcelona will be focused in preparing for the 37th America’s Cup in 2024With strong support from the Catalan government, the port of Barcelona will be focused in preparing for the 37th America’s Cup in 2024

In addition to being climatically in exactly the right zone, the fact that it is within rivalry distance of Marseille is all to the good. For although there were those who said that 2024 being France’s Olympic year will provide an opposing distraction from the America’s Cup, the Marseille/Barcelona rivalry will actually ensure that even more energy is put into each event, as Marseille is hosting the sailing for what is officially the Paris Olympiad.

The SailWeb comment piece also hints at mysterious money being involved to encourage various interests into the fray. It may well be that it was Monaco which was described by Somerset Maugham as “a sunny place for shady people”. But the fact is that the entire Mediterranean basin is the world’s oldest maritime trading and nautical wheeler-dealer area. And if you’re a heavy hitter wishing make things happen discreetly within the international sailing scene, then the Mediterranean is the place to do business.

And putting Barcelona into the forefront chimes neatly with current Spanish national preoccupations. For it is not the Spanish government which is bank-rolling whole-heartedly behind the Barcelona bid, it’s the regional government of semi-autonomous and often rebellious Catalonia. In Madrid they reckon the devil soon finds work for idle hands, so if Barcelona and Catalonia can be kept hyper-busy and home-focused for a couple of years in preparing and spending for the 2024 America’s Cup in a race against the clock, then it’s all to the greater national good.

The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s signature building, is devoid of any straight linesThe Basilica of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s signature building, is devoid of any straight lines

So we may be wrong, but we just can’t see the 37th America’s Cup going anywhere other than Barcelona. As for the great port city’s wonderful citizens, they’ll take it all with the effortless stride of people whose signature building is Gaudi’s extraordinary basilica of the Sagrada Familia. There’s not a single straight line in the entire structure, for as the architect said: “The straight line belongs to men, the curved one to God.”

To which we might add: “And the curve ball belongs to the promoters of the America’s Cup...”

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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