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Posted by on Feb 15, 2010 in Sailboat Racing, UK, US |

America’s Cup Race 2 Almost Didn’t Happen

All of the pre-race litigation may have shown its value in creating a level playing field yesterday when observers helped the presiding race officer start the final race over the objections of most of his crew, who were representatives of the defending yacht club.

When I first heard the story, reported by Cory Friedman of Sailing Scuttlebutt, I couldn’t quite believe it, but I’ve since confirmed these events with two sources directly involved.

Principal Race Officer Harold Bennett gets the America's Cup started with a coin toss to determine the starting positions of the two boats for Race 1. Guilain Grenier/BMW Oracle photo

Principal Race Officer Harold Bennett gets the America's Cup started by flipping a coin to determine the starting positions of the two boats for Race 1. Guilain Grenier/BMW Oracle photo

It’s fundamental to the Principal Race Officer’s job description to try to start a fair race if he or she can before the time limit for a given day’s racing expires. Yesterday, with the wind stabilizing as the 4:30 pm time limit to start Race 2 of the America’s Cup ticked down, Principal Race Officer Harold Bennett discovered that the other race-committee officials, a group appointed by the defending club, Societe Nautique de Geneve, were unwilling to do their tasks to help him start the race properly.

At this point, I can only imagine the conversation. But the upshot was that Bennett did what a race officer qualified by the International Sailing Federation is supposed to do; he figured out how to get the job done anyway by recruiting two observers to help him raise the flags to start Sunday’s Race 2 of the America’s Cup.

Friedman reports:

…even when you thought it could not get any worse – it did. The defense club – Société Nautique De Genève’s (SNG) – had their Race Committee actually go on strike and refuse to start Sunday’s race ordered by ISAF approved PRO Harold Bennett. To begin the second race of the Match, Bennett was forced to draft Golden Gate Yacht Club (GGYC) observer Tom Ehman and a Guardia Civil cop on board the RC boat and ordered them to run the flags as Bennett counted down himself.

Sunday was the last day a race could be run before several days of strong winds and dirty weather struck. Unlike previous days, even though conditions were not suitable for a race, Bennett got the boats out early and they sat on the course all day with the 4:30 pm cut off for a start looming. Around 4 pm the wind had shifted and filled in and Bennett started preparing for a start. SNG’s race committee just did not want to start, claiming that the waves were in excess of 1 meter – Alinghi’s sea state tolerance. Bennett ordered the AP down and the Race Committee flat out refused. A major row ensued and both sides held their ground.

Read the rest Friedman’s report at SailingScuttlebutt.com.

The only inaccuracy in the Scuttlebutt report, I’ve learned, is that Bennett’s second recruit was not a Guardia Civil cop but Paco Quinonero, the committee boat driver. The first, as stated, was Golden Gate Yacht Club representative, Tom Ehman. Both are experienced race officials in their own right, with ISAF qualifications as international umpires, but I suspect Bennett would’ve gotten the flags up and down if he’d had to recruit spectators out of the nearby fleet.

Now suppose Bennett had caved in and said, “Yeah, it’s kind of late. Let’s call it a day.” And then, a day later, while waiting for the next scheduled race, some stormy weather had arrived that severely damaged USA’s wing? Despite the trimaran’s blistering boatspeed, the final result might’ve changed.

Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle team has taken a lot of heat for its successive legal challenges, contesting the rules under which the regatta would be sailed. But maybe they had a point. Without a challenge, Golden Gate rep, Tom Ehman, wouldn’t have been aboard the Cumberland catamaran on which Bennett started the races. More importantly, Bennett, an ISAF official, might not have been there either.

Well done, Harold.

—John Burnham

Harold Bennett's America's Cup race committee records the finish of Race 1 on February 12, 2010.

The 2010 America's Cup race committee records the finish of Race 1 on February 12. Guilain Grenier/BMW Oracle photo