The long awaited Protocol is released. Matthew Sheahan outlines the key points and considers the impact, while Jimmy Spithill offers his views on how this cycle will differ
The long awaited America's Cup Protocol has been published and with it comes the blueprint for the next event.The 35th America's Cup will be in the summer of 2017, raced in 62ft LOA foiling, wing masted multihulls on a course similar to the previous event with the same spectacular TV footage that brought the last event to life in September last year. Aside from the slightly smaller boats on the face of it at least, the 35th Cup will look much like the previous event, yet the detail in the Protocol reveals significant changes to the route to the prestigious match.What follows is an outline of the key points along with some comments from Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill and a view from myself on whether this plan will stick.WHEN & FORMAT?The America's Cup World Series will get under way in 2015 and start the new Cup cycle. It is anticipated that there will be six events in 2015 and a further six in 2016. The racing will be in the AC45s which will remain a strict one design class. Whether or not they will be foiling is still up for debate.The events will be shorter and hence cheaper for teams to participate in and will visit various venues.The first big difference is that each event will be scored and count towards the Cup. While the precise scoring format has yet to be decided, the key issue is that the leading teams at the end of two years (2015/16) will get bonus points, for the next stage in 2017 when they will be sailing AC62s. The precise number of bonus points will depend on the number of entries.Teams will be able to launch their AC62s towards the end of 2016, one per Challenger, but two boats are allowed for the Defender although here there are tight restrictions on the boat and when it is sailed. (see later)The first event that the AC62s will engage in will be the America's Cup Qualifiers which will take the place of what would have previously been the double round robin series. In an effort to ensure that the racing is meaningful and not just a tune up regatta, the winning team in the qualifiers will gain a one point advantage come the Cup match itself, the idea being that the ACWS will now have some relevance to the Cup itself.But one of the biggest differences is that the Defender will also be racing in this series and is also eligible for the one point advantage come the Cup match should they win. This has been included to ensure that the racing counts as much for the Defender as it will for the Challengers. In the past, particularly in the 32nd Cup where the Defender raced with the Challengers, the criticism was that the racing simply revealed the Challengers' performance to the Defender while there was no pressure on the Defender to perform.At the end of the Qualifiers the Defender will stop sailing against the Challengers and the top four teams will move onto the Challenger semi-finals and finals.From there on the semi finals and finals will play out much as before, albeit with the winner of the qualifiers (either Challenger or Defender) starting the match up 1-0.The Cup match itself will be a first to 7 wins event.THE BOATSBroadly speaking the new AC62s will look very similar to the AC72s but with several key differences that are aimed at reducing the campaign costs. These include tighter limits on both the number of key components, such as daggerboards and wings that a team can build. In the case of the wingsails, just two are allowed per team. Despite being allowed a second boat, the Defender is also limited to just two wings in total.Although the boats will be smaller, their performance looks likely to remain the same or even be better than the AC72s."The weight and the righting moment of the boat has been reduced, as has the number of crew which has dropped from 11 to 8.
The result is that the loads on the boat have been halved which in turn reduces the costs," explained Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill. "But while the loads have been reduced, the engineering has moved on from the last event and the sailors have gone forwards too which makes us think that the boats will be as fast if not faster this time around."So when might we see them?At present the precise date that the AC62s can launch hasn't been defined as the Protocol says ‘not prior to 150 days before the first race of the AC Qualifier.' Broadly speaking, five months before the first race in the AC62s.WHERENo venues have yet been announced for the ACWS, the AC Qualifiers or the Match itself.
The host city, venue and dates of the Match will be published as soon as the details are finalised, but no later than December 31, 2014.NATIONALITYThis topic has been a hot potato for many years but for the 35th Cup, 25 percent of the sailing crew needs to be from the country of the challenging team. This means two out of the eight crew."There has to be a balance," says Spithill. "Sure it's important to represent the country of challenge but we also want the competition to represent the best of the best and not about the colour of your passport. Take Ben Ainslie, who sailed for us in the last event as an example, or Glenn Ashby sailing for the Kiwis, should they have been excluded from the event? We want to have the best athletes."Sounds obvious perhaps, but while the nationality issue keeps rearing its head, the reality is that there hasn't been one since 2003 when Alinghi won with just a couple of genuine Swiss sailors, so perhaps this topic is a bit irrelevant.WIND LIMITSThe new limits have gone up slightly 5-25 knots but the final wing sizes will depend on the conditions at the various venues. A windier venue would result in a smaller wing, while a lighter airs venue would mean a bigger wing.ANALYSISThe move to ensure that two years of ACWS racing counts towards the Cup is a big step forward. For the 32nd Cup cycle in Valencia the original plan was for the ‘Acts' to count for points towards the America's Cup match yet when it came to it, great and glamorous as they were, the Acts counted for nothing other than prestige for the teams and a promotional boost for the Cup. This time the build up and the points system looks set to give the ACWS some meaning."This time around, building on what took place last year, there are real commercial responsibilities," said Spithill. "Our aim is to develop the Cup from a rich man's sport to a sustainable grand prix event. We saw many big changes last time around but now it's time to move things on."Among the bigger changes, one that stands out a mile is the rule on the number of boats that a team can build. Why should the Defender be allowed two boats while the Challengers can build only one?"Given the amount of investment involved and the focus on TV, it would be irresponsible to go into the match with the risk that a boat breakdown could end the event," he continued. "We have to have a fall back plan in the event of a catastrophic failure.""The fact is that our second boat can only be built from the same moulds as the first and no design progress is allowed for the second boat. We cannot two boat sail until the Qualifiers are complete and we can only build one wing per boat. That's a hell of a risk in itself as I know to my cost."But what of the Challengers, what if they suffer a catastrophic failure?"Then the next best Challenger would take over," he replied.
So how much confidence should we have in the Cup going ahead as planned in 2017? There have been plenty of cases of the Cup becoming derailed after a very readable Protocol was published. In the 32nd Cup we were told that the ‘Acts' would count, in the end they didn't. In the 33rd Cup we were told large monohulls would be the order of the day, instead we got a Deed of Gift Match with two giant multihulls and a best of three series in the winter.Bit for what it is worth I have greater confidence in this Cup cycle for several reasons, the most compelling being the strength of the Challenger of Record where former AC regatta director Iain Murray is now one of the key personnel in the Challenger camp. There is little, if anything at all that he doesn't know about how the Cup process works and the tactical and political pressures that might come to bear.In the past, Defenders have chosen weaker, more malleable Challengers of Record. This time, the Golden Gate YC and the team that represents it is up against a tough, knowledgeable and well funded organisation. And while no one is saying the process couldn't come off the rails, the negotiation for this Protocol must have been a task in itself between two strong players.The result is surely good news for Challengers.