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Troubled America's Cup regatta strains to reach starting line

America's Cup regatta director Iain Murray (2nd L), Team Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena (3rd L), Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barke
America's Cup regatta director Iain Murray (2nd L), Team Luna Rossa skipper Max Sirena (3rd L), Emirates Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barke

By Noel Randewich and Jonathan Weber

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Sunday was supposed to be when the controversy and tragedy that have surrounded the 34th America's Cup regatta would finally give way to a breathtaking spectacle of 72-foot catamarans racing around San Francisco Bay, barely touching the water, at speeds once unheard of in sailing.

However, in keeping with an event where little has gone as planned, the skipper of Italian competitor Luna Rossa Challenge said Friday that - as a matter of principle - his team may not show up for the match with Emirates Team New Zealand that was supposed to kick off the summer of racing.

"We're here to race, but with fair rules," declared Max Sirena, the Luna Rossa captain.

Bickering over the rules is an America's Cup tradition. Both Luna Rossa, backed by Prada fashion mogul Patrizio Bertelli, and New Zealand have objected to boat design changes that were put in place in the wake of a May accident that killed British Olympic sailor and Artemis Racing crew member Andrew Simpson. An international jury is considering the arguments, but a formal hearing was not scheduled until Monday.

Cancellation of the opening race of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the winner of which will face off against Oracle Team USA for the America's Cup, may ultimately have little impact on the competition. Still, it would be a symbol of how Oracle Corp software mogul Larry Ellison's ambitious effort to re-shape what critics deride as a rich man's yacht race has gone awry.

Russell Coutts, a New Zealander who led his nation's successful America's Cup campaign a decade ago before defecting to head Ellison's Oracle racing team, had some choice words for the protesting Italian team.

"It's a bunch of spoiled little rich kids dressed in Prada gear," he said.

ELLISON'S HIGH-TECH DREAM

Ellison, who won the cup in 2010 and with it the right to set the rules for this year's race, hoped to make the 162-year-old competition more accessible to everyday sports fans and push the boundaries of high-tech boat design.

The result was a competition featuring huge, lightweight twin hulled boats made of carbon fiber, with hard "wing" mainsails. The AC72s, as they are called, have the ability to lift up out of the water on hydrofoils to reach speeds near 50 miles per hour (80 km per hour), the upper range for many fast motor boats. With San Francisco Bay forming a natural amphitheatre, the races will be visible from shore. The goal was to give viewers a show that would be closer to Formula One motor sports than to a traditional yacht race.

But the aggressive design helped push the cost of fielding a strong challenge above the $100 million mark, and the number of teams has dwindled from the 12 to 15 originally anticipated to just four. The economic benefits for the city of San Francisco are now expected to be much less than the $1.4 billion originally projected, and local residents who had opposed the event from the start now worry that the city could be on the hook for millions in expenses.

The technical risks inherent in the boat design came tragically to the fore in May, when Swedish team Artemis Racing's boat capsized and broke apart, trapping Simpson underneath. Investigations into the accident are not yet complete, but the incident - which followed a non-fatal wreck of an Oracle boat last fall - prompted an urgent review of boat design and safety protocols.

The result was a package of 37 new safety rules and equipment modifications, including several affecting the design of wing-like device attached to the bottom of the boat rudders known as a rudder elevator. Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand have refused to agree to some of the rudder elevator changes and maintain that race director Iain Murray does not have the authority to alter such rules.

They argue that the modification gives an unfair advantage to Oracle.

STRONG WORDS AND STRONG WINDS

The rhetoric has grown heated in recent days. Luna Rossa went so far this week as to say Murray, an Australian sailor widely respected in the sport, enacted the changes deliberately to make its boat illegal, an accusation he sharply rejected on a conference call with reporters.

"The claims that they have been done to suit a team are farcical," Murray said. "These boats not only have to steer like a normal boat, they have to fly like an airplane."

Murray warned that if the jury rules against his measures, he will have to tell the Coast Guard that the races are no longer safe - an action that could scuttle the event altogether.

Meanwhile, Artemis, which is still working to get its second boat ready and will join the competition later in the summer, said Friday that it would be forced out of the competition if the rule changes were rolled back.

On top of all that, the new rules include lower wind speed limits, which could create another kind of havoc. A scheduled time trial on Friday was called off because of high winds.

Despite all the troubles, an opening day event on Thursday suggested that the Cup could still be plenty of fun for San Francisco residents and tourists. Visitors to one of the two main America's Cup venues along the city's waterfront strolled through a exhibit explaining the science behind the boats, sipped California wine while watching an airshow and gawked at the line-up of VIP megayachts.

Organizers said 30,000 people turned out for the opening day ceremonies. The schedule calls for round-robin races between Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa to continue through July, with the winner taking a spot in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals and the loser than facing off against Artemis Racing for the second spot in the finals.

The winner would then challenge Oracle for the America's Cup, beginning September 7.

Stephen Barclay, head of Ellison's America's Cup Event Authority, shrugged off concerns that the event had yet to capture the imagination of local residents and sports fans.

"The interest builds. We start off now and it builds and builds and builds until we get to the crescendo of the Americas Cup match," Barclay said.

(Reporting by Noel Randewich and Jonathan Weber in San Francisco; Editing by Alden Bentley and Lisa Shumaker)

(The story has been refiled to change "previously" to "once unheard of" in first paragraph)

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