May 13, 2007 2:39 pm

The 18th man

Amid the slender and beautiful people who throng the dockside at any international sailing regatta, the representative of the Financial Times cut a rather forlorn figure. Leaving aside the slender-and-beautiful issue, there was the worrying matter of the sea.

An America’s Cup yacht has 18 people who have to squeeze into a space about as long as a large living room and as wide as a small bathroom. There are 17 skilled and fit professionals, who are not supposed to allow an ounce of flab on their bodies or their boats – and one passenger, the 18th man,brought along for the ride. In the context of international sport, this is bizarre: Manchester United don’t allow spectators to plonk themselves inside the penalty area. In the context of the America’s Cup, it is not at all bizarre. Sport and money are conjoined twins, we know that. But nowhere else is the link quite so obvious and unashamed.

It is a privilege to be 18th man, one reserved either for a celebrity or,more often, the representative of a major sponsor.Well, it was early in the competition and a thin day, and the Italian team +39 had kindly invited the FT to join them.

Everyone else in Valencia was jealous and some received the news with a sneery “Why you?” look. The lucky winner, however, was not enjoying his fortune. I know the sea all right, and have unpleasant memories of a moderately choppy crossing on the Portsmouth-Cherbourg ferry. And I knew about these boats, too: the essence of America’s Cup yachts is that they roll from side-to-side like a particularly nasty fairground ride.

It is true that there had just been three days of unprecedented calm. Every day the boats had travelled towards the start line. Every day the crews had waited hopefully for the breeze to pick up. Every day the sign had gone up on shore: “COMIENZO DI REGATA RETRASADO”. And then they waited some more, before the final notice: “REGATAS CANCELADAS”. It is true that everyone else was worried there would again be no breeze at all.

But still it was an unnerving prospect. Carla, the nice lady from + 39, handed over a bloodcurdling disclaimer, obliging me to agree that this exercise was thoroughly dangerous, and that in the certain eventuality of disaster, I was not even to think of blaming them, however negligent they may have been. Then I was handed my kit (contrasting colours so other boats would know I was a non-combatant and refrain from shooting, presumably) and stepped aboard. My mission, as I understood it, was to sit down and shut up. First problem: there was nowhere to sit.

But you know what? It was terrific. Even under tow, we glided out of the harbour like a TGV. Choppy? The sea was as rough as a toddler’s paddling pool. To port, Valencia and the mountains were shrouded in red haze, a Los Angeles-style smog. “That’s not a good sign,” said the boat’s helmsman Iain Percy. “The air’s got to be going up, and it’s not.” His tactician, Ian Walker, added: “This is the calmest day I’ve ever seen in Valencia and I’ve been here two years.”

With a race improbable, the crew relaxed: Walker explained to me the principles of the boat, some of which I grasped; Percy snoozed; everyone munched on pasta and panini.

Then it happened. The first puffs of breeze became steadier. The anemometer began to register seven or eight knots instead of the previous five or six – marginal but enough to make racing just feasible. This was potentially great news for +39.These guys are underdogs, representing a challenge with a fraction of the resources of their larger rivals. In a preparatory race, their mast came crashing down and they had to borrow a temporary replacement; a larger team would have had spares.

The syndicate has compensated for its deficiencies by hiring a crew of Olympians, several of them medallists, and building a boat specifically designed for light airs. If this breeze kept up to make it just raceable, it might have a chance, even in today’s contest against Luna Rossa, its far richer Italian opponent.

The messages from the race controllers grew more hopeful. Everyone was wide awake now, and took their positions with practised ease. The banter stopped. Everything unnecessary was chucked into the support boat, even the panini. It turned out this did not include the 18th man. Far from being unnecessary, he is essential. Under the rules, the alternative is to include 100kg of lead to make up the weight. Since I happen to be well under 100kg, they had to throw in extra weight as if this were a horse race. Slender after all, it transpired.

With a thrilling whoosh, the mainsail was hoisted, and suddenly it caught the breeze. I was as desperate to race as they were now. Expected to shift to windward as required, I astonished myself with my zest. We had a fair wind in our sails, the thrill that has lifted the spirit of mariners for millennia.

Below me, there was an almost ear-splitting creak (the friction of the winches vibrating through the hull, I was told). I looked up at the sails and saw Corrado the bowman 100 feet up the mast securing the battens, a sight that stopped me worrying about my own situation. No wonder he had seemed like one of the quieter members of the crew. But this was amazing: we were going to race.

Oh no, we weren’t. “It’s dying,” said a voice. The radio messages became more cautious. The anemometer numbers dropped alarmingly. On shore, a chimney was spewing smoke almost vertically. Half an hour later we were trudging back to harbour. Cancelada, yet again.

It was terribly disappointing for us boaties. But the world did not go into mourning. For the casual spectator, the America’s Cup is perhaps the most opaque of all sporting events: the races take place somewhere out to sea; and the rules are impenetrable to landlubbers.

It is nearly 25 years since the event had its moment of global glory. In 1983, Australia II scored a dramatic victory to end 132 years of American domination so complete that the trophy was famously nailed to the floor of the New York Yacht Club. The story transfixed Australia, which sat up through the night to watch, and the world. Bob Hawke, the Australian prime minister, remarked: “Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum.”

With the trophy duly un-nailed, the rundown port of Fremantle was revitalised for the defence. But the beaten US skipper, Dennis Conner, regained the trophy, and then everything went murky – most obviously for Alan Bond, bankroller of Australia’s triumph, who was jailed for fraud, but also for the America’s Cup itself. In publicity terms, the event vanished beneath the waves.

The trophy alternated between the US and New Zealand, who exploited a loophole in the rules to outsmart the Americans in 1988. Contenders battled each other in the law courts while sports editors and television executives lost interest. By the time Switzerland got in on the act by winning in 2003, only the yachting fraternity and a few quiz enthusiasts either knew or cared who held the America’s Cup. Switzerland! Ocean racing? The Swiss were bewildered, too. The following winter, their top skiers had a particularly bad season. “Ah, well,” they laughed, “What can you expect of a sailing nation?”

It might have seemed appropriate if the new, and formerly lakebound, masters of the ocean could defend against Hungary, Nepal or Paraguay. Instead, Ernesto Bertarelli (No. 76 on the Forbes list of the world’s billionaires and head of the Swiss team) got together with the US software mogul Larry Ellison (No. 11) to drive the Cup forward. Zermatt and Zurich were not plausible hosts for the Swiss defence, so Bertarelli instituted an Olympicstyle bidding process to find a suitable site. Valencia won and regenerated its own port to host this event and show off one of the continent’s little-known gems, an unregarded but quietly lovely city, like Turin or Hanover.

In four years the money involved has increased exponentially. “It’s more commercial and less friendly now,” said the America’s Cup eminence Bruno Troublé, sadly. And it is Bertarelli and Ellison who are the dominant figures in this contest, not their helmsmen. Both are actually members of their own crews, which can lead to some interesting situations with the skippers. Whether they would be there if they didn’t own the boats is a matter of debate.

In the America’s Cup, the money has actually driven out the nationalism that fuels public interest. Ellison’s team is BMW Oracle, a name unlikely to get them flying Old Glory in Pensacola or Peoria. The British, who traditionally played patsy in the days when the Americans ruled these particular waves, are nowhere to be seen. Nor are the Australians. Their big-league billionaires seem to have other interests.

Some of the challenges retain a patriotic dimension: both New Zealand and Spain have glimpsed enough of the potential of staging the race for their governments to chip in.And national stereotypes are not entirely absent: the French have a reserved parking place for the most important member of their support crew – “Chef Denise”.

There is also China Team, which has turned the Chinese national image upside down. The other ten boathouses are fiercely guarded to preserve the secrets that lie below the waterline. But the Chinese welcome all-comers to their rooftop bar. I discovered it on another of those breezeless April days. The sun glistened on the water and the boats bobbed, just a little, in the distance.Were they racing, or not racing? Did it matter? Another cerveza, anyone? It was not easy to think of a nicer place to be.

But Troublé is right to be troubled: the weight of money is now such that the spirit that infuses crews like +39 seems bound to be swamped by the waves of cash.Money talks in every sport, but in this one it screams. “These are the problems of success,” mused the Cup’s media director, Marcus Hutchinson.

Well, maybe. But for real success, sports need to find a balance between their soul and their wallet. “Firstly, this is a financial race,” says one competitor. “Then you’ve got to organise a team. Thirdly, you’ve got to have a fast boat. Last, you’ve got to sail well.”

The fear is that sailing well is becoming an ever-more marginal determinant of victory. Amid the complex rules of the America’s Cup, the one that really matters is not written down. It’s the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.

Matthew Engel is a weekend columnist for teh FT and editor of the Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack

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