• "We're the good guys..." Jimmy Spithill in his element at the media conference. Photo Gilles Martin-Raget/ACEA.
    "We're the good guys..." Jimmy Spithill in his element at the media conference. Photo Gilles Martin-Raget/ACEA.
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The Hamilton Island Yacht Club, challenger-of-record for the 35th America’s Cup, was dealt another blow yesterday when Olympic 49er champions Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen announced they had re-signed with Artemis Racing. This follows previous announcements that Tom Slingsby is staying with Cup holder Oracle Team USA and Glenn Ashby with Emirates Team New Zealand.

With 33rd and 34th Match winning helmsman James Spithill almost certain to remain at Oracle, despite a raft of rumours to the contrary, the Australian challenge has missed out on all the big names it must have been hoping to attract. Other Australians, like Oracle wing trimmer Kyle Langford, are also staying with the holders for two valid reasons – income and reputation.

I have been told that HIYC offered the big names only a fraction of what their existing teams put on the table, and as professional sailors they want to ensure that they are on a boat that has a good chance of winning the Cup, or at least being in the final.

There has been some ill-informed criticism of this attitude, but few of us would leave a high-profile company where we could establish our reputations to go to a start-up company with no track record – and take a 75% pay cut to do so.

HIYC backers Bob and Sandy Oatley and challenge CEO Iain Murray find themselves in a Catch 22 situation. To attract the world’s best sailors and the sponsors needed to pay their wages, the challenge needs credibility. But to be credible, it needs to have top sailors and sponsors.

HIYC is the official challenger-of-record, but CoRs have changed before. Club Nautico de Roma was the original challenger for the 34th Match, but was replaced by Artemis Racing when the Italians couldn’t get the required funding.

They are also a victim of timing. Before they can negotiate seriously, they need to know what the protocol will be – what boats will be sailed, what they will cost to build, how many crew will be required and how long the campaign is likely to be.

They are in negotiations with Oracle CEO Sir Russell Coutts over these matters and I believe most of it has been resolved. But there will be no announcement until early next year.

If I was a betting man I would put money on the boats being 60ft foiling catamarans with a lot of one-design componentry to keep costs down, possibly even including the wings. There will be no World Series next year, also reducing the wages bill, and the new generation boats won’t be allowed to sail until January 2017, eight months before the Match gets underway in San Francisco in August of that year.

These initiatives should allow teams to be competitive on an overall budget of $50million, which would be within the ballpark for HIYC and would mean the challenge has a very good chance of going ahead. By comparison, ETNZ admitted to spending $100 million on the last campaign and Oracle is thought to have spent twice that amount.

It IS about the boat

The good news for Australians hoping to see a competitive challenge is that sailors are the least of Iain Murray’s concerns when he puts the team together. Yes, it would have been brilliant to have the Big Five sailing for Australia. They are not only the world’s best sailors, they are also a bunch of excellent men who would gel the team and provide a very saleable commodity when talking with sponsors.

But Australia has no shortage of quality sailors. There are three very accomplished multihull helmsman competing in the Nacra 17 for a single spot at the Rio Olympics. Only one of Olympic silver medallist Darren Bundock, Youth World Champion Jason Waterhouse or 49er and 18ft skiff champion Euan McNicol can get the spot, leaving two of them free.

Iain Murray has mentored 18 Footer champion Gotta Love It 7 for many years and I believe has already signed Sam Newton (ex Oracle boat captain) to the team. Skipper Seve Jarvin is an obvious candidate. Then there are the successful match racers like Torvar Mirsky, David Gilmour and Keith Swinton.

Murray could put any of these sailors on the best boat and win the Cup. And he could put Spithill, Slingsby, Outteridge, Jensen and Ashby on a dog and lose it. While the one-design elements will make the designers slightly less significant, the Cup will still be won by the faster boat. It always is.

So the messages to Australian fans are these:

Don’t lose heart. HIYC needs to crank up its PR machine and get some announcements out before all the good-will evaporates, but there is plenty of time to put together a good challenge.

Perhaps, as sporting comedians Roy and HG are so fond of saying, you have to lose one to win one. HIYC needs to be competitive in 2017 to have a chance of winning in 2021.

Don’t pay out on the sailors who are not sailing for Australia. These are extraordinary men who have made big sacrifices and worked very long hours to be as good as they are. They are entitled to reap the rewards. Tom Slingsby, for example, worked two hours a day EXTRA in the gym at Oracle to become one of the best grinders in the squad, just to ensure he was on the boat for the Cup.

The sailors are well-paid for their America’s Cup duties but we are not talking tennis or golf salaries. Just as Australian soccer and rugby players go to Europe where they can earn a lot more, rather than play in the local competition, these sailors are professionals looking to maximise their worth – now and in the future.

Cadel Evans rides for BMC, not the Australian Green Edge team. Mark Webber drove for Red Bull… as Jimmy Spithill said when asked how he felt sailing for an American team, “Welcome to the brave new world Brother!”

- Roger McMillan

 

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