Mud Baths

The latest editions of the America's Cup and the Route de Rhum have been marred by bad luck, poor decisions, and, in the case of the America's Cup, a bushel of bad apples.

On the one hand, the two events couldn’t be more different. The America’s Cup, which will take place this month on the Hauraki Gulf, off Auckland, New Zealand, is a round-the-buoys match race contested aboard lancelike carbon-fiber behemoths with 17-man crews. The Route du Rhum, the most recent edition of which took place last November, is a single-handed ocean race from France to Guadeloupe, West Indies, featuring Open-class 50- and 60-foot monohulls and a separate fleet of spindly 60-foot trimarans.

Night, meet day.

But here’s the similarity. The latest editions of each of these so-called sporting events have been seriously marred by crummy luck, ill-advised decisions, and, particularly in the case of the America’s Cup, a whole bushel of bad apples. Few of the participants have bathed themselves in glory, and many have done quite the opposite. For the sake of simple common sense, both events require a dose of radical change. But, alas, common sense, that most precious of seagoing commodities, seems in scant supply.

Let’s start with the Cup, which in mid-December was the subject of a scathing Sports Illustrated article entitled "Ships of Fools." (It’s always terrific to see sailing receive some nice, positive play in the mainstream media, no?) Actually, the reporter had great, easy fun at the expense of the small platoon of self-important billionaires whose crews dominate this season’s action off Auckland. Neither they nor sailing came off in a very favorable light.

Then again, why should they? It’s beyond the scope of this short rant to detail all the improprieties in the current Cup fiasco (for endless commentary and detail, visit the official website for the Louis Vuitton Cup Challenger Selection Series: www.louisvuittoncup.yahoo.com), but here’s one observer’s overall take:

Thanks in part to the relatively new practice of allowing talented sailors to hop from one nation and syndicate to another after each Cup regatta in a chase for the almighty dollar, cheating is rampant. Seattle’s OneWorld group twice paid fines and was docked points (but was allowed to continue competing!) for serious rules infractions regarding the pilfering of boat and rig designs.

Even for the America’s Cup, with its storied history of backhanded legal shenanigans, the proliferation of lawyers and courtroom spats has become epidemic.

To underscore the secondary nature to which the actual sailing has been relegated, 18 of the first 48 racing days were canceled, many because the wind had piped up to over 19 knots. That’s right, during the Louis Vuitton series, a proper Force 5 breeze was the upper wind-speed limit for racing.

So let's sum up: National loyalty is dead, greed is good, cheaters are cool, and sailing's called off at the precise moment some decent air fills in. Is that about it?
If nothing else, one can't accuse competitors in the Route du Rhum of shying away from a bit of heavy weather. The greater question is, who's going to protect these ultra-macho solo cowboys from themselves?

Here’s a partial list of the damage report for the 2002 Rhum race: Fifteen of the 18 trimarans in the event retired because of capsize, collision, a dismasting, or because they simply started to break apart. Two sailors careened into ships. Another plowed into the overturned hull of a flipped tri. Hey, nothing like coming to the aid of a fellow sailor in distress, right?

Miraculously, no one was killed in the Route du Rhum, though it doesn’t appear for lack of trying. In reality, there’s a pretty simple fix for that event: Run it in the spring, not the fall. And enough with the extreme, hopped-up multihulls. Solo sailing’s challenging enough in a more forgiving monohull.

The America’s Cup is a bigger problem, and the fix isn’t so simple. It deserves nothing less than a complete overhaul. In the meantime, there’s a foul odor emanating from the Hauraki Gulf. Unfortunately, it’ll take more than a big westerly to clear the air.