By REED ALBERGOTTI And DARREN EVERSON
In a move that spotlights the Middle East’s new role as a sports powerhouse, the Swiss sailing team Alinghi and its yacht club, the Société Nautique de Genève, said Tuesday that the 33rd America’s Cup sailing race will be held at Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates for the first time.
High Seas, High Stakes
Alinghi officials confirmed the decision in interviews a day before the closely watched announcement.
Ras al-Khaimah, which literally means “top of the tent” in Arabic, is located in the southern part of the Persian Gulf about 134 miles from Abu Dhabi and 100 miles from the southern coast of Iran. In a statement, Fred Meyer, vice commodore of the Société Nautique de Genève, said the venue “offers perfect weather and great sailing conditions for a match in February.”
By custom, the defending America’s Cup champions have the right to choose the location for the race. Team Alinghi, which won the last America’s Cup in Valencia, Spain, in 2007, says it considered venues all over the world, including sites in Brazil, Thailand, Uruguay, Spain, northern Italy and Greece.
After training in the U.A.E. this winter, team officials said they felt it was the best fit for this race, which features what should be the two fastest boats in the competition’s 158-year history. Alinghi, which is owned by Swiss pharmaceutical heir Ernesto Bertarelli, will face off in three head-to-head races against rival BMW Oracle, backed by software mogul and Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
The America’s Cup is the latest major sports conquest for the U.A.E., whose financial resources are making it an ever-larger player in international sports. The annual Dubai Desert Classic golf tournament has attracted top names, including Tiger Woods, with large appearance fees, and Formula One is holding its season-ending race in Abu Dhabi in November. Tennis player Roger Federer trains there in the off-season.
According to a person familiar with Alinghi’s plans, the team believes the area’s calm seas and relatively light winds offer it a competitive advantage. Alinghi’s boat, the Alinghi 5—a 90-foot catamaran with two large carbon-fiber hulls—is thought to be lighter than the three-hulled trimaran currently being tested by the Golden Gate Yacht Club’s BMW Oracle team. Alinghi believes its lighter boat will be faster in milder conditions.
The Persian Gulf, where the races are to be held, is a budding sailing destination, with regattas going on throughout the year and sailboats increasingly dotting the horizon. An island built inside the Al Hamra Village lagoon will serve as the base for the teams and offer accommodations for the media, sponsors and fans. The Al Hamra Village is a new luxury resort on the coast of Ras al-Khaimah. In a statement to be released Wednesday, Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Crown Prince of Ras al-Khaimah, described the news as a “great moment” for the country that reflects “how the Emirates have become a place for hosting international events.”
The America’s Cup, which begins Feb. 8, will be unlike recent competitions. A legal dispute between the Alinghi and BMW Oracle teams has resulted in the elimination of many of the specifications and rules that kept the boats looking fairly similar in previous years.
Alinghi’s carbon-fiber catamaran was unveiled recently on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. The BMW Oracle team hired Washington state boat builder Core Builders to construct its gigantic trimaran, which the team has been testing near San Diego.
No matter how strong, or weak, the winds are, the competition is likely to be intense. Alinghi first captured the Cup in New Zealand in 2003 and successfully defended it in Valencia in 2007. BMW Oracle has tried twice to win the America’s Cup but hasn’t been able to make it out of the preliminary stages. The boats, estimated at about $10 million each, are among the most expensive sailing craft ever built and are considered the fastest in the race’s history—capable of traveling more than twice the speed of the wind.
Brad Butterworth, Alinghi’s skipper, has spent the majority of his career on the more traditional, single-hull boats and says he can’t wait to get in the water. “These new multi-hulls are totally wild,” he says. “It’s going to be something totally different.”
Given the speed of the boats, Mr. Butterworth says the Persian Gulf offered a safer and more reliable setting for the competition. In the winter months in Valencia, he says, the wind is so erratic, and often so strong, that the current boats could very well capsize.
“I have a vested interest in surviving this race,” he said. Ras al-Khaimah, he notes, “has a great building sea breeze during the day, similar to Mediterranean conditions in the summer, making it good for these boats and safe for all concerned.
“There aren’t that many places you would consider sailing these boats,” he added. “This one really jumped off the map.”
Unlike most America’s Cup races, where dozens of boats compete one-on-one to decide who the challenger will be, a series of controversial moves and court rulings have narrowed the field to two. Alinghi and BMW Oracle will compete for the Cup in three races in February.