Last week wasn’t a tranquil one for the 35th America’s Cup — assuming there will be such a thing as scheduled in 2017.
It started the weekend before last, when the Hamilton Island YC of Australia, the Challenger of Record, called a summit of all the interested potential syndicates. Representatives of Italy, New Zealand, Australia, France and Sweden attended. Not wanting to be left out, representatives from the Oracle team asked to be invited, and were permitted to attend. The current America’s Cup state of affairs was discussed and grievances aired.
We’re told the challengers expressed their views on the list of venues having been whittled down to Bermuda and San Diego by doing a group karaoke version of Tony Bennett’s ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’. Just as there famously is "no second" in the America’s Cup, there apparently is no second to San Francisco when it comes to America’s Cup venues. Several syndicates went so far as to say they couldn’t give two hoots about pink sand beaches, if Bermuda was selected as the site of the Finals, they wouldn’t be participating. "At least it’s in California," seemed the highest praise that could be generated for San Diego, famous for light-air sailing.
That’s not all the challengers groused about. There is also the fact that the deadline for entries is just three weeks away, while it will be months before the venue for the Finals is announced. Were the challengers whining or could it really be difficult to attract multimillion-dollar sponsors if nobody knows where the Finals will be held? We suspect the challengers might have a point.
But the big bomb landed on Saturday, when Bob Oatley, the wine tycoon who owns the Hamilton YC and was putting up the dough for the Team Australia Challenge, dropped out. "The challenge was initiated with a view to negotiating a format for the 35th America’s Cup that was affordable and put the emphasis back on sailing skills," he said. "Ultimately our estimate of the costs of competing were well beyond our initial expectation and our ability to make the formula of our investment and other commercial support add up. We are bitterly disappointed that this emerging team of fine young Australian sailors will not be able to compete at the next America’s Cup under our banner."
Ben Ainslie reacted by saying this isn’t the first time a Challenger of Record had dropped out of an America’s Cup, nothing to see here, move along folks. Ben is hardly an unbiased observer. After all, he was navigator for Oracle Team USA during their stirring comeback in the last Cup, so he can be seen as all but a member of their camp. Even more importantly, he’d recently announced that he’d formed his own British America’s Cup team, one that will be getting considerable sponsorship from the government. While heading an America’s Cup campaign isn’t always the path to riches and high society, it often has been. Have you seen the photo of Sir Ben and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton? We hope Prince William hasn’t. If the 35th America’s Cup flounders, Sir Ben could be a big loser.
What was even more shocking was the discord that started erupting in New Zealand. It started when Emirates Team New Zealand syndicate head Grant Dalton told the Kiwi government that although the Kiwi team’s long-term financial situation was in excellent shape, they needed $5 million from the government by the end of the month to keep the team from going bankrupt. Dalton’s ‘poor us’ claim rang as hollow as those of $250,000-per-speech Hillary ‘Dead Broke’ Clinton, as it was revealed Dalton has been making $2 million a year as the Kiwi syndicate head. While two mil might be what Ellison leaves as a tip when doing a late-night Taco Bell drive-through in one of his Honda NSXs, it’s a lot of money in New Zealand.
While the salaries of other team members couldn’t be released because of "competitive reasons" — ha, ha, ha — it was intimated that the second biggest earner on the Kiwi team, and second by a long way, was helmsman Dean Barker at a pitiful $250,000/year. Before any of you swooning gals decide to send ‘Dean the Dream’ any lunch money, it was also reported that both he and Dalton are rumored to be worth about $14 million. Once again, that’s not chump change in New Zealand the way it is in the United States. As if to highlight how lucrative the Cup has been for him, Dalton recently took delivery of a $100,000 racing motorcycle. Previously he’d stuck to racing Camaros and other muscle cars for relaxation.
Surveys of both government representatives and the public showed that support for the Kiwi team has been faltering. Indeed, 80% of those surveyed basically said the government shouldn’t put any more money into an America’s Cup effort when the head honcho is getting two million a year out of it.
It seemed to be dirty-laundry week in the Land of the Long White Cloud, as Rob Waddell, "Team New Zealand’s best grinder," revealed that there had been discord in the team during the last Cup Final as well. This, Waddell said, was a result of Dalton, 56, insisting that he be a grinder in nine of the first 10 races. Barker, as well as Waddell, apparently tried to discourage Dalton and wanted to have a younger and stronger grinder on the boat. It was alleged that Dalton’s vanity had been the problem, as his onboard participation had supposedly been driven by Russell Coutts’ taunt that Dalton was too old to crew.
What now? In a Latitude exclusive, we can report that Larry Ellison and Russell Coutts managed to convene a secret late-Sunday night meeting with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and members of the Board of Supervisors to plead, hat in hands, to let the Cup come back to San Francisco. "I’ll pick up the tab for everything," said the fifth richest man in the world.
Just kidding about that last paragraph.