When I tell people that the America’s Cup is the most vicious, ruthless, nasty competition in world sport, the images of fabulous boats, shoreside parties and memories of great racing and swashbuckling personalities over the years cloud their response. It all looks so gentlemanly from the outside, so sporting. The politics pales into insignificance, memories are short in the public, but behind the scenes good men get broken, fortunes are wrecked, marriages end, people do strange things.
I call it the ‘Great Game’ but it’s ugly backstage, so ugly that many don’t want it so and a look under the bonnet is a step into a world of high politics, legalese, back-biting and back-stabbing. When an experienced Cup operator opines that ‘the Cup will chew so-and-so up and spit him out’ they mean it. You have to have steel in your veins to operate in this environment.
I’ve seen it myself first hand. I’ve been on the receiving end of all manner of shenanigans. You learn to grow up. Resolve gets instilled and you learn who to trust and get a masters degree in tea-leaf reading and magic-ball gazing. You have to steer near to your own truth and your own observations as the official word is rare and controlled. It’s very dull too. Reporting on the racing is actually the easiest part. Keeping up with the politics in a void filled with disinformation and self-interest is a lifetime’s work. I like operating in the void.
The latest piece of politicking is fascinating. With the venue set to be announced and that venue unlikely to be Auckland, the Great Game goes into over-drive. The notions being challenged are the trusteeship status of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron who are bound to act in the interests of all beneficiary parties – ie all the Challenging yacht clubs (not their sporting teams) – and not just in the interests of Team New Zealand. The RNZYS is not allowed to favour the interests of one party over another and the hawking of the venue to a bidder that will support Team New Zealand is the perception. The reality is different.
And it’s an incredibly dangerous perception and presumption to take to the New York Supreme Court and probably explains why, despite the hugely obvious PR leak, nobody with significant standing has stepped forward to put their name to it. The waters are being tested by media leaks to see the reaction of the RNZYS and TNZ and they are, I understand, more than prepared for this one.
Equally, the status of the Challenger of Record has been questioned and this one is seriously daft and a non-starter. This aired last night on Tom Ehman’s excellent Sailing Illustrated show that you can watch here:
However, I have the following email from a very senior member of the Squadron, one heavily involved in the club’s Cup campaign:
“I was watching Tom Ehman this evening and heard him stating on a number of occasions that the Royal Yacht Squadron had ‘abandoned’ Royal Yacht Squadron Racing Limited and set up a new entity called Royal Yacht Squadron Limited shortly before submitting its challenge on March 17th 2021. For the record, this information is incorrect, Royal Yacht Squadron Racing Limited merely changed its name to Royal Yacht Squadron Limited on 24th March – the corporate entity (founded on 21st May 2014), which challenged (unchallenged) for both AC35 and AC36 remains unchanged. All documents relating to the corporate structure of RYS Limited are of course available on the Companies House website: https://find-and-update.company-information.service.gov.uk/ “
So that strand is dead. Stone dead. The one remaining challenge is utterly dependent on the New York Yacht Club and its appetite for destruction. That appetite seems rampant and there are members unhappy with the committee’s movements of late – they’ve told me as such in quite forthright emails and texts. The dumping of club member Terry Hutchinson and the American Magic syndicate was seen as harsh by many whilst the submission of a challenge to the RNZYS looked like an obvious sleight on the Royal Yacht Squadron – a club that they’ve been joined at the hip to as pinnacle global yacht clubs for decades. Not the done thing in these circles – smart though as it is.
Equally, the cosying up with the Stars & Stripes team had everyone scratching their heads and the rumours of links with US rappers or a gargantuan deal with Satya Nadella’s Microsoft had many a member spluttering into their Brandy Alexanders in the 44th Street clubhouse. Is the NYYC playing fast and loose with its fabulous members’ goodwill?
Supporting the nascent legal action emanating from Auckland could be Commodore Culver’s last stand or finest moment. Win and somehow become Challenger of Record usurping the Royal Yacht Squadron and slamming the door on Jim Ratcliffe’s billions could be the worst thing ever to happen to the Cup – especially in the current climate – but a coup for the club. Lose the court battle, however, after spending millions and halting the competition for the next two years and the reputation of one of the greatest clubs in the world lays in tatters and causes immeasurable problems for generations to come. The Cup can survive without the New York Yacht Club, they are not Ferrari, but can the club’s standing survive without the Cup?
And I come back to a helicopter perspective. The Cup desperately needs to get racing again. Miring it in legalese and tying it to the New York Supreme Court is a hopeless situation. We’ve just had a marvellous Auckland Cup that captured a new public, largely in lockdown around the world, and the event has a golden opportunity to power into a new era and confirm its place at the apex of our sport.
Legal action looks clumsy and obvious. The younger generations will just turn away and scroll straight on through the America’s Cup. It will take years to get them and the event back on track. The lost years in the Supreme Court will be wasted time for a hill of beans. So it’s a nervy time now. Stick or twist for Commodore Culver and I don’t discount the Italians having a say somewhere in all of this as an interested beneficiary. Perhaps even Alinghi?
The PR is ramping up in New Zealand too with a new Curia Market poll showing that 72% of polled Aucklanders want the defence held there and that’s fair enough but where is the money coming from? Fancy investment banking models are all well and good but sadly that’s not how the Cup works. Cold hard cash, not financial gearing is the only game in town and none of the money men in New Zealand, and there are a lot, have stepped forward so far. A late twist there? Who knows?
Perhaps the ultimate game-play here is that the NYYC is attempting the age old trick of kicking a man when he’s down and forcing the Cup to be defended in Auckland, knowing that the Emirati money won’t support Team New Zealand. Weaken the defenders by limiting the money supply. Suffocate them of financial oxygen. Kill them in the courts and assume a weak defender will be easy prey on the water.
It’s a dangerous game. The Great Game is all on. It’s vicious. It’s nasty. It’s high stakes and everything’s to play for. Tension is rising. Love it.