Sitting amongst the thousands of spectators was a rather large clue as to what happens next in the America’s Cup. And with Haydon Porter, General Manager of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron confirming on Newstalk ZB in Auckland that a challenge had been accepted for the 37th America’s Cup, it’s hard not to draw the dots with Jim Ratcliffe’s 242ft Feadship ‘Sherpa’ sitting at virtual anchor like a whale amongst sprats, and the obviousness of Challenger of Record status.
Nothing is confirmed yet and facts are thin on the ground other than confirmation on a Kiwi radio channel that the club’s email servers and telephone lines were shut down, as is the protocol, as the final race concluded and a challenge was accepted behind closed doors, delivered presumably commodore to commodore in the most formal of manners.
If the signature on the challenge was that of Jamie Sheldon, Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes, it would be no surprise but what is fascinating is the chatter in the New Zealand press saying that the desire is for a Deed of Gift challenge, one on one on the Isle of Wight as early as next year. House prices in Cowes are rising by the minute. The Rightmove App crashed this morning and the town is alive with the news. The Pier View pub is primed and ready. Yacht clubs that haven’t seen a customer in a year have hope. Furloughed restauranteurs are believing there is a God. And the Harbour Master is flicking through the new RIB brochures once more. This is big news.
But will it happen? Something has to have changed. Jim Ratcliffe was extremely clear that he wanted to level the playing field and see some changes to the quirks and nuances of the Cup rules. So what deal has been struck? What agreement in principle has been made for him to commit eye-watering sums once more to the game.
Perhaps a gentleman’s agreement to use the same boats? Te Rehutai versus a revved up Britannia that can continue its development path and prove that the miss of Portsmouth and Cagliari World Series events really was the deciding factor to its ultimate disappointment in Auckland? Or is it a tactical play to shut out the Italians who both teams found difficult to work with and halt their march to the Cup which would surely be inevitable after coming so close this time? Don’t expect this one to end in anywhere other than the Supreme Court.
Whatever it is, money is the key factor now. Team New Zealand pretty much hit the finish line on empty in the finance stakes. Sure there’s some big money backers around the team and there’s a sense that they can, if push comes to shove, secure their vital assets with surety of a challenge but how much easier could that look with an open cheque from a billionaire that they’ve grown close to over the past few months and can do business with?
And what now for Jimmy Spithill? Coming ashore he was a conundrum wrapped in an enigma who certainly wasn’t making any commitments to Luna Rossa on the tow-in and as a gun-for-hire, he’s a highly interesting prospect for a team like Ineos. Putting the dream team from San Francisco on a boat flying the white ensign on hour long 55 mile races around the Isle of Wight with all its tidal gates and variances would be an electric story – a story that would befit this Cup as it transitions through the pandemic and on to an ultimate series for the 38th edition.
One thing’s for sure. It’s all going on behind closed door and the next few days and weeks are going to be fascinating. ‘Bring the Cup back home’ never resonated more.