New Zealand millionaire Michael Fay's proposal to challenge for the America's Cup next year and in a boat twice as big as a 12-meter has turned the auld mug upside down and raised nautical ghosts of a century past.
Sail America syndicate officials downplayed last Friday's challenge as frivolous, but Dr. Fred Frye, commodore of the San Diego Yacht Club for which Sail America's Dennis Conner won the Cup at Fremantle, Australia, last February, took it seriously.
"I don't think they're pulling our leg," Frye said. "It is a legitimate challenge as far as I know, but I just don't know what we do with it. It probably represents a loophole in the Deed of Gift."
Said Peter Debreceny, spokesman for the New Zealand group in Los Angeles: "It's not a loophole. It's the way it was typically done for the first 100 years."
But the Kiwis' bold move certainly caught Frye and the club off guard. The club, in association with Sail America, does not plan to stage a defense before 1991, with the site undetermined.
The Deed of Gift is the document by which the late George L. Schuyler formally bestowed upon the New York Yacht Club custody of the Cup on Oct. 24, 1887. It loosely defines the conditions of challenging and racing.
The deed not only defines the trophy as "a perpetual Challenge Cup," but stipulates that "the Challenging Club shall give 10 months' notice in writing, naming the days of the proposed races."
The challenger also must state the dimensions of the boat it will sail but New Zealand does not intend to sail a 12-meter, despite its success in reaching the challenge finals against Conner's Stars & Stripes at Fremantle with the controversial fiberglass boat KZ-7. That boat won the World 12-meter title at Sardinia a week ago.
The deed specifies a maximum waterline length of 90 feet and a minimum of 44. New Zealand has proposed to go the limit with a craft of unspecified material measuring 90 feet at the waterline, with a 26-foot beam and 21-foot draft.
And since it would be the largest boat permitted by the Deed of Gift, the defender would have to build one just as big to be competitive.
The 12-meters have been used by mutual agreement between defenders and challengers since 1958 for economic reasons.
In this century it also has been customary to sail America's Cup defenses three or more years apart.
Fay said: "We have taken the opportunity in the Deed of Gift to challenge next year in a larger yacht, more identifiable with the well known challengers and defenders of the first 100 years of America's Cup competition."
Unless otherwise agreed, the Deed says, the races will be best of three. Fay specified June 1, 3 and 7.
Sail America President Malin Burnham said of Fay: "I hope he is only exercising his sense of humor, and I would give him high marks for that."
Burnham especially objected to Fay's proposed format of a two-boat event.
"That's not what the world wants today," Burnham said. "Interest (in the America's Cup) is rising. By overwhelmingly popular demand, we're not about to turn our backs on all the other 12-meter teams."
The challenge could wind up being tested in the New York State Supreme Court, which has been the traditional watchdog of the deed. Meanwhile, Frye has been seeking input and opinions from New York Yacht Club officials before his club's board meets to discuss the matter Thursday night.
"The question is, what do we do?" Frye asked. "Malin (Burnham) has pooh-poohed the whole thing. (But) we have to make some sort of response. There's nothing in that original deed that says you can say no, or what happens if you do say no. There's nothing that says you must say yes.
"However, the tradition of the Cup is that one should have a regatta if one gets a challenge. If we don't defend in 10 months do we forfeit the Cup by default?
"It does pose problems in that we need an interpretation, and I'm not sure who that interpretive body is going to be. (Probably) the Supreme Court of the state of New York. That's where you appeal and that's where you go to change it."