All Dressed Up, No Wind to Blow
Spanish Host Promises Better Weather for Cup
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.
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.