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San Diego Sportscene / Dave Distel

New Zealand May Have Found the Tack to Lead It to the Cup

July 22, 1987|Dave Distel

America's Cup is in trouble.

It may be firmly ensconced in its case at the San Diego Yacht Club, but what you see is not the situation as it now truly exists. This most prestigious of yachting trophies is dangling precariously from a loophole.

If you guessed that those feisty Kiwis are involved, you guessed correctly.

Indeed, New Zealand, which almost stole away with the Cup in its controversial plastic 12-meter last winter, is trying another tactic.

New Zealand has challenged the San Diego Yacht Club to a three-race America's Cup series next June, being so specific as to name June 1, 3 and 7 as the dates for this showdown.

That's right. They're talking one week, give or take a week or two for practice. It sounds as if the Kiwis want to get the Cup out of San Diego before it has gathered a layer of dust.

And more than just America's Cup is at stake. The financial impact of the proposed full-fledged multinational defense in 1991 has been estimated by assorted agencies to be as much as $1 billion. That too could be sabotaged by these pesky Kiwis and their challenge.

And, get this, the Kiwis have challenged to race in 90-foot yachts.

You read that right too. N-I-N-E-T-Y feet.

Why not just make it dueling aircraft carriers?

If the Kiwis successfully complete this Cup coup, look for the Chinese to challenge with junks, the Italians with gondolas, Micronesians with canoes, the Kuwaitis with oil tankers, the Soviets with submarines and maybe Noah with an ark.

Is the America's Cup going to slip into a "duel at dawn" mentality? You know, either show up with pistol or sword in hand or forfeit the fair maiden.

In this case, show up off Point Loma with a 90-foot sailing vessel or ship America's Cup to New Zealand.

Can the Kiwis do this?

Though the Kiwis' latest caper might be considered by some to be a tacky tact in tacking, it sure looks to me like they are within the rules.

In truth, what the Kiwis have in mind seems to be in line with challenges as outlined in the Deed of Gift, the 100-year-old document under which these regattas are conducted. And what this all comes down to is what is legal or illegal, according to this document.

It might be tempting to suggest that the Deed of Gift is more representative of the spirit of competition than of specific intent. This was what I thought at first glance, when I noticed its brevity. It contains only 12 paragraphs. Surely, this could not cover all of the rules under which so complex a regatta is conducted.

I was right. The Deed of Gift does not cover all of the specifics of an America's Cup regatta.

But . . .

It does cover the challenge made by New Zealand.

You bet it does.

"The Challenging Club," according to the Deed, "shall give 10 months' notice in writing, naming the days of the proposed races."

It says nothing about defenders and challengers gathering in one place for a international extravaganza lasting weeks and months. The only challenge mentioned in the Deed is exactly what New Zealand has presented.

The same paragraph mandates that the challenger must specify the dimensions of the challenging vessel. New Zealand has done this. Without getting into beam, draft, girth, inseam, etc., suffice it to say that a yacht 90-feet long at the water line will easily exceed 100 feet in total length.

Obviously, the Kiwis are thinking big. The boat they propose to bring to the challenge will be twice as big as the 12-meters that have been raced since 1958. And Michael Fay, the millionaire fronting the Kiwi challenge, says he will sign a contract for his "superboat" this week.

This challenge has thrown things into just a bit of a tizzy, as if things could get any more confused hereabouts than they already were.

The San Diego Yacht Club and Sail America rode that same glorious wave in Australia, then got home and found they were not on the same wave length. A bickering over the makeup of a committee actually had to go to an arbitrator, and that particular committee still has not been named.

All of this infighting has centered on how (and where) the 1991 defense would be conducted. However, the political and bureaucratic acrobatics will be rendered moot if this challenge must be confronted, and I don't see how it can be avoided.

It is New Zealand's intent to come to San Diego for a week next summer and leave with the Cup. So much for weeks and weeks with thousands and thousands of visitors bringing millions and millions of dollars. So much for 1991.

The San Diego Yacht Club now has this challenge in hand. Wisely, Fred Frye, the SDYC commodore, is studying it quite seriously. The Deed of Gift, he understands, is not to be taken lightly.

"What do we do?" he said.

That's a good question, mainly because there is no easy answer. The Kiwis, it would seem, are playing according to the way the rules were written--but not according to the way the game has come to be played.

This is reminiscent of New Zealand's quest for America's Cup in Australia. If every hull was aluminum but one, guess whose was fiberglass? Naturally, it was the Kiwis' KZ-7. In the midst of considerable brouhaha over KZ-7's legality, the Kiwis reached the challenger final before losing to Stars & Stripes. Ultimately, KZ-7 was legal because nothing in the rules said it wasn't.

So here it is, only a few months later, and the renegade Kiwis are stirring the water once again. I am sure these guys figure they will have America's Cup on parade in New Zealand by the middle of next June.

And then . . .

Look for the Kiwis to challenge for the Super Bowl and the World Series. I figure they'll find a way to play the Super Bowl on a sheep farm and the World Series on a cricket pitch. After all, how can challenges be honorably declined?

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