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Koch’s missive captures essence of the America’s Cup debacle

2009 March 4
An open letter to Mr. William I. Koch, Palm Beach, Florida.

Dear Bill,

Perhaps I should address you as Mr. Koch, but frankly, you've been a part of my world as a sailor for so long that seems too impersonal. I know what you're thinking, though. Who is this Caswell guy? I don't know anyone by that name.

Well, Bill, that's the thing about fame. Win the America's Cup once and you're everyone's friend for life.

So, anyway, I'm writing to apologize. I'm a big enough guy to admit when I've been wrong and it seems that I've been wrong about you.

When you appeared on the America's Cup scene, you were a bit, ummm, arrogant. You'd twice won the Maxi World Championships in the early 1990s, of course, but your early prediction that you'd "win the Cup" seemed to me (and more than a few others) to be an ego speaking. But you plopped those chubby Botero sculptures on your lawn next to San Diego Yacht Club and made yourself at home.

And damned if you didn't send Raul Gardini's Italian challenger packing, although it didn't hurt to have Buddy Melges and Dave Dellenbaugh calling the shots. Even if you weren't one of the traditional defenders, we all secretly liked the fact that you'd kept the America's Cup in America.

Still, I was a bit put off when you said that "The problem of competition is primarily a management problem." For many of us, sailboat racing is about wind and tactics and hullspeed and luck and telltales and spinnaker douses. To suggest that it was something that could be quantified on a blackboard at MIT like a chemical formula, well, it raised a few hackles.

Then you came back in 1995 with the all-women's team, and though there were a few tee-hees about the girls, they went out and kicked some serious butt. You were on a roll there, and then you went and threw Dave Dellenbaugh aboard as starting helmsman and tactician at the last minute, and everyone was disappointed that you'd broken your all-girl promise. Just when we were starting to like you again, you shot yourself in the foot.

So here we are in early 2009 and the America's Cup is, by any criteria, a smoking ruin. Thank you, Ernesto Bertarelli. The Swiss billionaire took the Cup away from New Zealand in 2003, and hosted the last America's Cup in Spain, again winning but with a margin of just one second in the last race.

And then it was his turn to shoot himself in the foot.

He accepted a challenge from a fake yacht club that he'd created so he could control the America's Cup … a club with four members, no telephone, no boats, no clubhouse, and which had never hosted a regatta.

Another member of the Billionaire's Club, American Larry Ellison of BMW Oracle, filed suit and it was ruled that the challenging club was phony. Bertarelli appealed, and the ruling was overturned in mid-2008. Ellison appealed the appeal, and that's where it stands.

So why do I write to you today?

Because you wrote an amicus curiae (friend of the court) letter to the New York Court of Appeals on behalf not just of the America's Cup, but also sailors worldwide who have wearied of the prolonged wrangle.

I realize that I've been wrong about you, because your letter is, in a word, brilliant. You very clearly understand the heart and soul of the America's Cup, and like the rest of us, you agonize over having it sidetracked.

Oh, sure, the New York Yacht Club and the San Diego Y.C. (among others) have written similar letters to the court and I'm sure they were well done and will be considered. But they all have different axes to grind: they hosted the America's Cup and so their letters, though pure, don't carry your weight.

You, on the other hand, are one of us sailors, albeit one that the Court of Appeals is likely to take seriously. And as a journalist, I have to say I love your prose. Don't give up your day job as a billionaire, because there's no money in writing, but you've got a way with words.

To write that Bertarelli and the defending Swiss club "seeks to trample tradition and tarnish the prestigious reputation of the America's Cup by permitting a sham club" is not just alliteration at its best, but a pretty damning indictment.

And then telling the Court of Appeals that Bertarelli is using that sham club "to make money and circumvent the self-dealing charitable laws of New York," well, that should catch the court's interest.

Saying that if they allow the lower court ruling to stand will lead to "a rapid demise to the grandeur and prestige of the America's Cup" and that "the event … as it was envisioned by the donors of the Cup, would die ..." that's telling 'em, Bill!

So there you have it. With one letter, you've turned my entire attitude around and it seemed only right for me to apologize for having judged you wrongly. You really do love the America's Cup, not as a management challenge, but as something that many of us have followed with passion for decades.

The America's Cup is as much a part of sailing as spray on the face and wind in the hair to all of us. And this time, I think we're all going to win.

Chris Caswell

PS: I know you enjoy wine and I've been saving an insolent little red that I picked up at Trader Joe's. When the Court of Appeals decides against the Swiss, drop on by and let's share a glass. There's some symbolism there: It's a Spanish red.