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Hell and high water

Mark Dye is a freelance journalist based in London.

Dirty tricks, legal battles, secrets and lies. The America's Cup has had them all and it started as a challenge in 1851, when Lord Wilton invited America to join Prince Albert's Great Exhibition race. Mark Dye finds the passions and rivalry have intensified with time

The challenge for the America's Cup over the years has been shrouded in controversy and mystery. The quest for the world's oldest trophy is sailing's Holy Grail. Indeed, the chase has often made angels and demons of those involved.

The story began back in 1851 after Lord Wilton invited America to send a yacht across the Atlantic to race as part of  Prince Albert's Great Exhibition. Sure enough, the New York Yacht Club took the bait, promptly despatching a challenger to spoil the party. That year's victory for America was a bitter pill to swallow and ensured the continuation of what has become sailing's Holy war for some.

Having snatched the trophy at the first attempt, skipper Dick Brown set a precedent that saw the US dominate the sport for more than 132 years. Back then, John Cox Stevens, first Commodore and founder of the NYYC set up the Cup's first syndicate to finance the project and had George Steers design his team's schooner – America. With this victory a legend was born, as the 100  Guinea Cup took the name of the first ship to win the race. It was not until 1983 that another team would lay claim to The America's Cup.

In 1870 American luck held its own again once more when Cambria, the British entrant, confident of success, having edged out an American challenger en route, was beaten into 10th place against the NYYC fleet of 17 schooners. Of course, such a setback was not taken lightly and when James Ashbury returned only 12 months later with a schooner 19ft bigger than his previous 108ft vessel, he rightly questioned the notion of racing against a whole fleet of ships. With the NYYC backing down and agreeing to race one-on-one, the Englishman must have fancied his chances. However, with parity seemingly restored, things were a little more complicated than they appeared. The Americans had agreed to the deal with the option to use a second schooner depending on weather conditions on the morning of the race. With the odds now stacked in their favour, the NYYC boats Columbia and Sappho ran out 4-1 winners in the series. Not surprisingly, Ashbury left the water deflated, but even he could not have known that there would be nearly a further 50 years of hurt before an Englishman matched his own feat and won another race.

Over the years the controversy and tension continued to boil. Back in 1887, when Charles J Paine became the first man to win three consecutive cups aboard Volunteer, teams were just as worried about design theft as they are today. Yet, despite closed doors in the build-up, when the teams finally unveiled their ships they were worryingly similar, thus fostering an immediate element of distrust between the two. This was mirrored by a similar incident in the last competition in 2002-03 when before even a ship had set sail, OneWorld was penalised for holding design secrets belonging to rival syndicates Team New Zealand and Prada.

Perhaps the most famous incident of all took place in 1983, the year Australia  became the first country to beat the US. With tension on a knife-edge, a huge argument brewed between the two over the antipodean ship's apparently secret keel. At night Australia II had this covered to protect the design from prying eyes, so you can imagine the outcry when guards discovered two divers trying to take a peek.

Here is where the touch paper flared. Enraged, the Australian team charged the New York Yacht Club with illegal espionage. Things went from bad to worse when the NYYC claimed the Australians were attempting to cover up an illegal design. In the final twist of the tale, the race went on and Australia II, the smallest boat ever to compete for the America's Cup, ran out to win the series 4-3. As it turned out the Australians were hiding something – the boat had an extra-heavy keel, fitted with fins. And much to the disbelief of the American public and many around the world, the result was allowed to stand.

The stakes are high, and with some teams investing $40 million to $60 million in their boats and crew, it is easy to see why. From a public point of view it is perhaps the format that still holds the appeal. After all, two boats duelling it out over a race course and match races lasting for just a few hours makes for pretty exciting viewing. The excitement of the 2007  America's Cup has been further enhanced by the introduction of a series of preliminary races too. The Louis Vuitton Acts, which started in 2004, are taking place in various European cities before the final America's Cup match in Valencia, Spain, in two years' time. A further, if not slightly bizarre rule change – given the history of the event – has also allowed syndicates to sell design information to new entrants in a bid to make the regatta more attractive to new boats and sponsors.

Like any sport though, it is the characters that linger in the memory. New Zealander Peter Blake is perhaps the most famous yachtsman of the modern era. In a life seemingly dedicated to sailing he won classics such as the Jules Verne, the Fastnet Race, the Sydney-Hobart, and the Whitbread Round the World Race. However, his finest hour came in 1995 when he secured his country's first win in the competition – a feat he was set to repeat in 2000 as New Zealand successfully defended the America's Cup. Famous for his lucky red socks, which were to become a national symbol, Blake was the head of the Team New Zealand syndicate, which won every race bar one en route to a 5-0 drubbing of the USA in the final. Interestingly, their only defeat came when Blake was missing from the team. His murder by pirates, while on  an environmental exploration trip in  South America in 2001, was a sad day for the sport.

As Dean Barker, skipper of Emirates Team New Zealand, puts it: "Blake had a massive impact on the modern cup, especially for  New Zealand. He set the tone for the America's Cup as it is today." Barker believes that the world's oldest trophy still holds a special place in the hearts of sailors, placing huge demands both physically and mentally on those taking part.

"Over the years it has attracted many colourful characters and still does. The atmosphere is amazing," he says. "It is at the cutting edge of technology, the competition is fierce and it makes huge demands on the sailing and design teams. Sailing a race in the America's Cup is as demanding as driving in F1. Whatever the conditions, a close race is mentally and physically demanding."

Britain's own Ellen MacArthur agrees with him, citing the event as the "pinnacle" of in-shore racing. Barker says that to have a chance of winning a team must have enough money to be able to compete well. Without it they cannot put together the rest of the equation for things like design, support and the team itself.

"America's Cup yachtsmen are fiercely competitive," he adds. "No-one in Valencia will be there just keep up the numbers." And with Alinghi, the cup holders and BMW Oracle being backed by billionaires such as Ernesto Bertarelli and Larry Ellison, that statement rings true. Teams like Emirates New Zealand are reliant upon on commercial sponsorship, which at the level demanded to win the America's Cup is never easy to come by, laments Barker.
As to who he thinks will grab the glory, Barker is not sure. However, with the main challengers coming from BMW Oracle Racing, Luna Rossa and his own Emirates Team New Zealand, the race to Valencia  looks set to be wide open with some interesting tussles along the way. "The other teams are improving all the time and competition so far in the Louis Vuitton Acts shows that any team can win," he says.
This time around
The 32nd America's Cup began in earnest back in 2004 as the organisers' changed the programme following complaints that the gap between competitions was just too long for some. Evolving to an ambitious four-year schedule of a series of 'acts', sailors will be looking forward with one eye on the climax of the competition with the Louis Vuitton Cup – set up in 1983 to determine the challenger – and the America's Cup match itself in two years. Put simply, the mixture of fleet and match races ensures that there is now America's Cup competition in each year leading to the 2007 match in  Valencia, according to officials. This change also allows the competition acts to be played out at different venues such as Marseille, Valencia, Malmo and Trapani in Italy.

Points are awarded for each act and the team with the lowest score at the end of the year is declared the America's Cup Class Champion.

With successive acts being used as a ranking tool for the Louis Vuitton Cup in 2007, this and the final match itself will be shorter than in previous years, taking place in just three months of racing. The last act will involve an opening Fleet race, for all the competitors, before challengers square off in the Louis Vuitton Cup, to determine who will race Team Alinghi – the current holders – in the final match.

The boats
Today, the regatta is sailed with the International America's Cup Class yacht, a monohull boat averaging around 75ft in length. This was following a legal battle in 1988 between a Michael Fay-led New Zealand syndicate and the American team led by Dennis Conner. The dispute was about unfairness caused by differences in design. The American team had won a farcial race after the New Zealand boat – the size of the 1930s J-class – lost to the nippier "wing sailed" catamaran. These were first used in 1992.

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