SAN FRANCISCO — An already troubled America’s Cup took a wacky tack Friday when Luna Rossa threatened to sit out the opening race of the challenger series, prompting the boss of the American defender to call the Italians “a bunch of spoiled rich kids dressed in Prada gear.”
It just wouldn’t be an America’s Cup without controversy and some smack talk.
The only difference this time is the tiff has its roots in changes made following the death of British sailor Andrew “Bart” Simpson in the capsize of Artemis Racing’s catamaran.
That accident led regatta director Iain Murray to make 37 safety recommendations, including changes to the rudders that he says will make the high-performance, 72-foot catamarans more stable, particularly as they speed downwind riding on hydrofoils.
Luna Rossa and Team New Zealand have protested, saying Murray doesn’t have the authority to change the rules. They say their boats were designed and built under the old rules and they don’t have time to build new rudders and, perhaps more importantly, test them. They’ve also said they feel the change gives an advantage to defending champion Oracle Team USA, which doesn’t have to race until the start of the 34th America’s Cup on Sept. 7.
The opening race of the Louis Vuitton Cup for challengers is set for Sunday, between Luna Rossa and Team New Zealand.
The protest is scheduled to be heard Monday. Murray said the jury is from the International Sailing Federation and sets its own schedule. He said there’s a chance the issue could be mediated before Sunday.
America’s Cup officials have said all the boats are “street legal” regardless of what rudders they have.
“We may decide to not take part in the race on Sunday,” Italian skipper Max Sirena said at a news conference Friday. “The main reason for that is just because, I mean, we want to wait for the hearing of the jury and then we’ll make our plan on top of that.”
Later, Sirena interrupted a questioner and said: “We just feel it’s unfair and against our principal what is going on. ... We are here to race but we will not race without a fair rule. We don’t have to accept change of the rules one week before the race.”
Sirena didn’t get any sympathy from fellow competitors.
Russell Coutts, a four-time America’s Cup winner who’s the CEO of Oracle Team USA, later called the Italians “a bunch of spoiled rich kids dressed in Prada gear.”
Luna Rossa, which has competed in the America’s Cup since 2000, is backed by the Prada fashion house.
“I think it’s just wrong that they should think that by threatening the event and threatening race officials that they’re going to get their own way,” Coutts said. “It’s just the wrong approach. They’re frankly acting like a bunch of babies. Even my 7-year-old boy doesn’t behave like this. I wouldn’t accept this behavior from him. It’s childish.”
Told of Coutts’ comments, Sirena snapped: “Perfect. Let him say that. From a poor guy like he is.”
America’s Cup CEO Stephen Barclay said the Italians’ stance “is an affront to the fans who’ve been waiting 3 1/2 years for the first race.”
“What everyone will struggle to understand is Sirena saying he’s taking his stance on principle,” Barclay said. “This is the most unprincipled action I can think of because Luna Rossa’s case is before the jury. There is no reason not to compete, not to try and put the first score of the regatta on the board.”
Barclay also said event organizers had a dispute with Luna Rossa over branding of merchandise in the store at its team base, and that the Italians responded by closing the store.
“They were acting immaturely,” Barclay said.
While the Kiwis and Italians have been allies, Team New Zealand isn’t willing to go as far as Luna Rossa.
“For us, we’ve known that race starts on the seventh of July for quite some time,” said Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, who at times during the news conference folded his arms and stared toward the back of the room as Sirena was questioned about the Italians’ position. “We’re here ready to go racing. Whether Luna Rossa decides to race or not, we will definitely be out there and looking to spend more time on the race course. It’s definitely fun out there.”
Team New Zealand sold Luna Rossa a basic design package for its boat and the two teams trained together in Auckland. Their bases are on the same pier here.
As it stands, if the Italians don’t show up Sunday the Kiwis would have to complete the course to earn a point. However, with safety such a big concern, Murray said it’s possible that rule could be changed, if all the teams agree, so that the Kiwis would only have to start the race to get the point.
Murray has been through tough times before in the America’s Cup. As skipper of Australia’s Kookaburra III, he lost the America’s Cup to Dennis Conner in 1987. Eight years later, he was aboard oneAustralia when it broke in two and sank off San Diego during the challenger trials.
“Every America’s Cup has had its signature event of turmoil, so I guess we’re just getting off to a start here,” Murray said. “It normally happens at the start.”
With no defender trials, Oracle Team USA won’t begin racing until the opener of the 34th America’s Cup on Sept. 7, when it takes on the winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup.
Until then, the American syndicate will test its two boats.
“The America’s Cup has had a long history of some great battles on the water and also some battles that seem to have happened on shore,” Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill said. “You can talk all you want on the shore and you can play as many games as you want on the shore, but at some point you’ve got to go out and race. ...For us, we’re excited. We’re here to race and to hear other people maybe second guess that is a bit strange.”
Artemis skipper Iain Percy said the Swedish-backed syndicate is still a few weeks away from launching its new boat.
Also Friday, time trials for the 72-foot catamarans were canceled because the wind was stronger than the 20-knot limit, one of the changes made after Simpson’s death.