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Naval battle leaves the courts

As defending champions Alinghi have the right to decide where the next competition will be held Keystone

Alinghi, the Swiss holders of the America's Cup, have lost a 20-month battle against Oracle over who should be Challenger of Record in the next competition.

This content was published on April 9, 2009 - 15:34

Swiss sailor Nils Frei, who was part of the triumphant 2003 and 2007 Alinghi teams, tells swissinfo about the decision and whether it will affect their chances of a hat trick.

The next America's Cup had been scheduled for this summer but was delayed because of a protracted legal case that had entangled yachting's showpiece event. It is still unclear when competition will actually begin.

On April 3 New York's top court ruled that San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, which backs Oracle Racing, was the rightful challenger for the trophy, reversing a lower court decision.

The unanimous decision by the Court of Appeals gave the American club the right to negotiate race terms to the next America's Cup series.

But Alinghi, backed by the Société Nautique de Genève, as defending champions have the right to decide where the next competition will be held. Valencia is the obvious choice for Alinghi, who successfully defended their title there two years ago.

Golden Gate was expected to advocate a traditional multi-challenger regatta. If the two sides can't agree, they'll meet in a rare one-on-one showdown in faster 27-metre multihull boats.

That would pit billionaires and former friends Ernesto Bertarelli of Alinghi and Larry Ellison, founder of software giant Oracle, against each other aboard the boats they own.

swissinfo: What is your reaction to the New York court's decision?

Nils Frei: Legally, the case seems to me rather incoherent as just under a year ago the same court reached the exact opposite decision. But the verdict is clear and we accept it.

Sure, the team is slightly disappointed because we wanted to relive the fantastic experience of 2007 again this year, but we're ready to rise to the new challenge.

swissinfo: How has the disagreement between Alinghi and Oracle reached such a level?

N.F.: It's a very long and complicated story. The basis of the disagreement goes back to the previous America's Cup in 2007. It seems Alinghi made a mistake choosing a Spanish club [Club Nautico Espanol De Vela] as the Challenger of Record – this gave Oracle the chance to attack us in court.

The judicial machine then started up and the whole thing took up loads of time. The Americans did everything to ensure that their strategy worked – sometimes rather aggressively.

swissinfo: Didn't Alinghi rush matters by wanting to organise the 33rd America's Cup in 2009, only two years after the previous race?

N.F.: I don't think so. The 32nd Cup was a huge success and wanting to benefit from the momentum was a good idea. Many other teams also wanted to take part in the next race quite quickly. We might have made some mistakes regarding communication, but the basic idea was good.

swissinfo: Alinghi's success has popularised sailing in Switzerland. Do you think the legal spat has damaged the sport's reputation?

N.F.: Yes, it has greatly damaged the America's Cup. Even for those involved it's often been hard to understand what's been going on legally. Many people have given up and that's definitely harmed the public's interest in the competition.

We've gone through a bad phase, but I think people will go crazy for sailing again once the competition approaches.

swissinfo: It looks like we're heading for a multihull duel in Valencia in 2010. Will Alinghi be ready?

N.F.: We've been forced to get ready for such an outcome since a first legal decision went against us last year. Then, having won an appeal, we put this option on ice. Now the multihull option is taking shape, although it's still too early to reach a decision.

Representatives of Alinghi and Oracle are set to meet this week and we should know very soon whether the race will be multihull or monohull.

Oracle has the right to challenge us as the Challenger of Record, but that doesn't mean they can force on us anything they want. Alinghi remains the Defender of the America's Cup and we have influence and we retain the right to decide where the next competition will be held. In any case we will be able to react and rise to the challenge.

swissinfo: What would it mean for the sailors to change from a monohull to a multihull?

N.F.: In 2008, after the first decision that favoured Oracle, we did a lot of sailing in multihulls. This year, whatever happens, that will also be a priority. The really big multihulls are certainly different, but I don't think we'll have any fundamental problems adapting. Our jobs are more or less the same.

swissinfo: Is a 27-metre catamaran a greater challenge for sailors or for engineers?

N.F.: It's certainly an enormous technical challenge – what the designers face is quite incredible.

The sailors have to watch out for the massive forces and pressures which develop on these boats. Mistakes can very quickly become dangerous. But we're not afraid of that.

swissinfo-interview: Samuel Jaberg

Alinghi

Alinghi won the America's Cup at its first attempt in 2003, beating Team New Zealand 5-0 in Auckland.

The Swiss brought the trophy - the Auld Mug - to Europe for the first time.

The word Alinghi was invented by Bertarelli as a child. It was a little word to say everything and nothing with his sister. His first dinghy was also called Alinghi.

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America's Cup

The inaugural race was held off the Isle of Wight in 1851. America dominated right up until 1983 when Australia won the trophy.

In 1995 New Zealand became only the third country to win the competition, successfully defending their title in 2000.

The Swiss syndicate Alinghi sailed to victory against the New Zealand vessel Black Magic in 2003 and became the first European team to win the Auld Mug.

Alinghi, run by billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli and backed by Geneva's Société Nautique, then won the world's premier sailing prize in 2007 in Valencia, Spain, defeating Team New Zealand 5-2 in a best-of-nine contest.

According to the Deed of Gift – the rules of the 155-year-old race - the winner gets to pick the next Challenger of Record, and the two groups establish the rules for the next race.

The July 29, 2008 ruling by the US Supreme Court Appellate Division overturned an "ambiguous" requirement in the Deed of Gift rule for the Challenger of Record to have previously held regattas.

The court named Spain's Club Nautico Español de Vela as the race's Challenger of Record for the 33rd America's Cup. It has ten months to give a written notice of challenge to Alinghi, the current America's Cup holder.

On April 3 the New York Court of Appeals ruled that San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, which backs BMW Oracle Racing, was the rightful challenger for the trophy, reversing a lower court decision.

The unanimous decision gave the American club the right to negotiate race terms to the next America's Cup series.

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