All Dressed Up, No Wind to Blow

Span­ish Host Prom­ises Bet­ter Weather for Cup

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - By An­gus Phillips

VA­LEN­CIA, Spain — The weather de­lays that plagued the open­ing round of the Amer­ica’s Cup cast a long shadow over a sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment. This city, never a sail­ing port, has been trans­formed into one and if the sum­mer sail­ing breeze ever set­tles in, it prom­ises quite a show.

Spain spent more than $1 bil­lion turn­ing a grimy com­mer­cial port into a yacht­ing cen­ter. Out­side the tightly guarded gates of the new Cup Har­bor, ur­ban life goes on, full of mo­tor scoot­ers, traf­fic jams, dust, noisy bars, pun­gent cof­fee and empty streets from 2 to 5 p.m. when Spa­niards take a snooze.

But inside, a shiny cos­mopoli­tan bub­ble en­cir­cles the 12 box-like work com­pounds of the com­peti­tors. There’s a grand, ul­tra­mod­ern hos­pi­tal­ity cen­ter open to all, berths for su­pery­achts of the rich and fa­mous (mostly not here yet), broad walk­ways where rac­ing can be ob­served from land, mu­se­ums, cafes, spec­ta­tor boats and a me­dia cen­ter where new­shounds sit, grum­bling into their free es­pres­sos.

You’d ex­pect sailors to be the ones grip­ing about the fal­ter­ing wind that forced can­cel­la­tion of six of the first eight days of rac­ing but they didn’t. “We’ll get the races in,” guar­an­teed Ross Hal­crow, head­sail trim­mer on U.S. en­try BMW Or­a­cle. “It’s just a mat­ter of time.

“It’s not like we’re get­ting up at the crack of dawn and charg­ing down here,” added the for­mer An­napo­lis res­i­dent with a chuckle. “The races don’t start till 2 o’clock any­way, so we ride our bikes down, have cof­fee, have our meet­ings.”

Ed Fethers, who flew half­way around the world from Fre­man­tle, Aus­tralia, to ob­serve the open­ing week but saw just one day of ac­tion be­fore head­ing home, was un­per­turbed. “I got to see Mas­cal­zone Latino beat the Ki­wis,” he said glee­fully. “That made my week.” (Aussies and New Zealan­ders are ruth­less sport­ing ri­vals.)

Al­most ev­ery­one who knows any­thing about sail­ing agrees that Fethers’s home city hosted the best Amer­ica’s Cup in 1987, when 13 chal­lengers and four de­fend­ers bat­tled in wild winds and seas to crown Den­nis Con­ner a cham­pion. Fethers’s son Andy was so moved by the spec­ta­cle, he took up sail­ing and is now a bow­man on Ita- ly’s Luna Rossa chal­lenge.

Fre­man­tle could do that to you, with boats smash­ing through huge waves in 25-knot winds un­der cobalt skies, main­sails and spin­nakers shred­ding un­der ham­mer­ing loads, crew­men van­ish­ing in cas­cades of sparkling spray.

Don’t look for any of that here. When bil­lion­aire Cup win­ner Ernesto Bertarelli and his Alinghi team se­lected Va­len­cia for yacht­ing’s pre­mier event af­ter win­ning in 2003, they weren’t seek­ing big winds, just re­li­able ones. A string of post­pone­ments dur­ing the Cup Match in Auck­land, New Zealand, where the last event was held, dis­ap­pointed ev­ery­one, most no­tably TV rights-hold­ers.

Since the Swiss have no port on the sea, they scouted Europe for an ap­pro­pri­ate venue. Four made the cut — Naples, Mar­seilles, Va­len­cia and Cas­cais, Por­tu­gal. Va­len­cia got the nod when Spain pledged the prodi­gious out­lay of cap­i­tal needed to re­build the har­bor, then rounded up key cor­po­rate spon­sors to help pay for the event.

The money was there, but what about the wind? Amer­ica’s Cup Man­age­ment of­fi­cials in­sist that of the four fi­nal­ists, Va­len­cia promised the most re­li­able breezes. In­deed, when the best-of­nine Cup Match be­tween Alinghi and the top chal­lenger starts June 23, a solid sea breeze of 7 to 14 knots is ex­pected daily. It’s not Fre­man­tle, but at least it’s some­thing to count on.

That leaves 11 chal­lengers from nine na­tions to fight it out for supremacy in April and May, when the weather is less re­li­able. As chal­lengers sat wait­ing for the wind to blow last week, con­spir­acy the­o­ries abounded. Had Alinghi se­lected the Cup match dates know­ing chal­lengers would strug­gle to pull off their se­lec­tion rounds in du­bi­ous winds of April and May? Were Alinghi sailors laugh­ing be­hind their backs as chal­lengers bobbed in a wind­less swell?

Ab­so­lutely not, says Alinghi tac­ti­cian and team leader Brad But­ter­worth, a no­to­ri­ous Cup games­man who ex­pressed the­atri­cal shock at the no­tion he’d be party to such a das­tardly sce­nario.

But­ter­worth trot­ted out Alinghi’s crack weather team last week to back him up. Me­te­o­rol­o­gists John Bil­ger and Jack Katzfey pro­duced charts and doc­u­ments show­ing that over the last five years, winds were too light for sail­ing less than 10 per cent of the time in April.

Michel Bon­nefous, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of Amer­ica’s Cup Man­age­ment, the Cup or­ga­nizer, in­sisted at a sep­a­rate meet­ing that the run of light winds that forced can­cel­la­tion of al­most the en­tire first week of chal­lenger rac­ing was out of char­ac­ter. “It’s an un­usual cir­cum­stance. Last year we sailed in April and Oc­to­ber and lost only one day in each. We more or less never lost a day.”

Oth­ers agree. “We’ve been train­ing here three years,” said Hal­crow, the BMW Or­a­cle crew­man, “and I don’t think we ever lost more than two days in a row.” Added Roger “Clouds” Bad­ham, weather­man for top-rated chal­lenger Emi­rates Team New Zealand, “Of the four fi­nal­ists, Va­len­cia def­i­nitely had the best record for weather. Once we get go­ing, ev­ery­one will for­get all about this.”

Mean­time, a trans­formed port waits for the spot­light to shine on it. And from the strug­gling, dirt-poor China Chal­lenge at one end of the Cup Har­bor to mighty, well fixed Alinghi at the other, sailors wait for a sail­ing breeze — as sailors have done since the be­gin­ning of time.

BY VIC­TOR FRAILE — REUTERS

A crewmem­ber on Swe­den’s Vic­tory Chal­lenge catches up on his read­ing in lieu of rac­ing. “It’s just a mat­ter of time” un­til the el­e­ments co­op­er­ate, one sailor said.

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