Ed Baird, helmsman for America's Cup champion Alinghi, followed with great interest as the crew of a rival syndicate tested its 90-foot trimaran in the waters off San Diego last month. "There is no doubt about it," Baird said of the multihull with a mast 16 stories high. "It is an impressive piece of machinery." Baird, a St. Petersburg native, guided the Swiss boat to victory over Team New Zealand two years ago in what many believe was the closest America's Cup finish in history. Alinghi, an America's Cup Class Version 5.0 monohull, measured roughly 80 feet long and 10 feet wide, standard for boats of its kind since 1992. But the potential challenger, built by Oracle software founder Larry Ellison, is a monster compared to the sloops America's Cup sailors have raced in the past. "It is the biggest, baddest day racer ever built," Baird said. "But the question is, will it race?"
Courtroom skill has become as important as boat handling in many of the recent America's Cups. Several times in the past 25 years, legal challenges have overshadowed the competition in the world's oldest sporting event.
"The minute the Cup is over, there is a team waiting on the dock to issue a challenge for the next time around," said Baird, who has not only sailed in, but worked as an America's Cup television analyst. "But this time, things didn't go so smoothly."
The Golden Gate Yacht Club, the home of Ellison's BMW Oracle Racing, filed suit in hopes of replacing the challenger of record, the Spanish syndicate Desafio Espanol.
BMW Oracle contends that Desafio should be disqualified because the syndicate never hosted a regatta, one of the rules of the "deed of gift," which governs the America's Cup.
The Spanish had signed on as the official challenger for the 33rd America's Cup, scheduled for 2010, moments after the Swiss team defeated the New Zealand team in the summer of 2007.
Since then, Alinghi and BMW Oracle have fought a running court battle and a judge in New York City is expected to issue a ruling this spring. The Golden Gate Yacht Club was the challenger of record after Alinghi won its first America's Cup in 2003.
Ellison's trimaran cost an estimated $10 million, three or four times that of a typical America's Cup boat. The trimaran, which is roughly the size of a baseball diamond, can sail twice as fast as the wind.
The typical America's Cup sloop averages 10 knots during competition, and by some reports, may approach 20 knots under extreme conditions.
The BMW Oracle trimaran has been testing off the waters of San Diego in recent months. While America's Cup teams consider boat specifications trade secrets, published reports have put the trimaran that carries a mainsail twice the size of a 747 wing with a top speed of more than 40 knots.
"That's fast, real fast," said Baird, who has spent some time training on multihulls to get ready for 2010, just in case the court rules in favor of the rival syndicate.
If approved, Ellison's boat will be the first of its kind in America's Cup history. In 1988, American Dennis Conner raced a catamaran against an oversized New Zealand boat in a contest that was also mired in controversy.
If BMW Oracle prevails in court, it won't necessarily have an easy path to victory.
"We have been working on our boat for quite some time," Baird said. "It has been a well thought out, careful process. But if we have to sail a multihull, we will be ready."
Long list of challengers
To date, 19 teams have stated an interest in participating in next year's America's Cup. Several teams have filed "friend of the court" briefs on Alinghi's behalf. Last month, 18 teams met in Valencia, Spain, to discuss the proposed rules and a new class of boat that will be longer, wider, but lighter than the last Cup boat.
"Alinghi wants to make the America's Cup more affordable," Baird said. "We think the more teams involved, the better it is for the sport."
America's Cup teams usually train with large crews and two identical boats. Baird said Alinghi has proposed a single monohull competition that would cut costs dramatically.
The teams that have signed up include Desafio Espanol, Spain; Shosholoza, South Africa; Royal Thames Yacht Club, United Kingdom; Emirates Team New Zealand, New Zealand; United Internet Team Germany; Green Comm, Italy; Ayre, Spain; Victory Challenge, Sweden; Argo Challenge, Italy; French Spirit, France and Carbon Challenge, Belgium.
"If it comes down to two trimarans racing, there won't be a lot of tactics involved," Baird said. "It will be more like a drag race."
Information from Times wires was used in the report.