“Alinghi is turning the page, but keeping the book open”.
Text:Propos recueillis par Brice Lechevalier
What is your assessment of this Alinghi decade?
First of all, I’d like to thank all those who have supported Alinghi for the past ten years. We received a great many messages of sympathy in Valencia, back in February, which touched us deeply. To sum up the results of this past decade, we won two out of three cups so it’s proven to be very positive! It’s worth recalling that in 159 years, this trophy has only been won by three nations outside the United States: Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland. Our victory in the 31st America’s Cup was a surprise, the 32nd edition proved to be a great success and a great celebration. The 33rd enabled us to come full circle as we experienced the most difficult aspects of the Cup and had to negotiate stumbling blocks that we hadn’t even suspected would be there. In this way we’ve experienced the whole gamut of America’s Cup history. The difficulties encountered during this 33rd edition put our first two victories into perspective, but they also made them all the more significant. The America’s Cup is embedded in an Anglo-Saxon universe and Switzerland is the first country in the world to have uprooted it, so Alinghi and the Société Nautique de Genève can be proud of this achievement. Together, we’ve shown that even being small and without a sea, it’s essential to battle all the way to the end. Today, the whole world knows the value of Swiss sailing. A winning Switzerland is important and it has to be encouraged and supported. After that you have to accept defeat and draw lessons from it for the future.
For a sailing enthusiast though, these legal wrangles must lack appeal…?
Indeed, I didn’t need the past two and half years of legal battles to learn that a Swiss team was going to be penalised against an American adversary in front of a New York court. We could have simply folded, as it was clear from the outset that we weren’t going to be allowed to continue with our vision of a modern America’s Cup, open to more teams, with a more accessible economic framework. Their approach had nothing to do with ours, it was all very unlike Alinghi’s: remember who financed Team New Zealand in 2003 so that they could hold onto their sailors and remain a strong Challenger for the 32nd America’s Cup. It was Alinghi. So rather than taking the wise option to withdraw which would have meant I’d avoid some complicated, conflicting years, I opted for the second choice: resistance. I went for determination and a particular line of conduct, prepared to die on the field of battle. I don’t regret my decision at all and I hope that Europe will retain something positive from it.
What is your worst memory of this affair?
With such a course, I don’t retain any bad memories, we’ve been lucky to experience an extraordinary adventure. However, it’s true that certain aspects have unsettled me. Once the integrity and the line of conduct you force yourself to keep to are neither recognised nor respected, you feel for your team and your partners. For example, it isn’t just Switzerland which lost the Cup, Spain did too, as the Americans had promised that it would remain in Valencia if they won. Two years earlier, our friends from Desaﬁo Español heard it all as Challenger of Record, but imagine what would have happened if they’d worn Alinghi jackets? And yet it was clad in Oracle clothing that Vincenzo Onorato came to sign the Challenge agreement in February in Valencia, whilst he was supposed to be representing all the Challengers. The lack of sportsmanship and ethics also affected me: the fact that we weren’t allowed to decide on the meeting place despite it being the Defender’s right, or that they wanted to deprive us of our sails, for example. I wouldn’t have acted in this way, but I did all I could to defend our colours and continue to be able to look at my reflection in the mirror in the morning.
And your best memory?
Here again, I wouldn’t want to denigrate the ground I’ve covered by reducing it to a single moment, but my last excellent memory in Valencia dates back to the day before my return to Switzerland. I brought the whole Alinghi team together to touch on this great epic and thank them for having stuck by me. We talked about what had been shared and it resulted in a moment where emotions were running very high, coloured by a common pride, a sense of a job well-done and of human warmth.
Would the outcome have been different in Ras al-Khaimah?
I don’t know if Alinghi 5 would have won in RAK and I don’t want to look for excuses about the competitive outcome of this meeting. They sailed better than us in Valencia, they did an extraordinary job on their boat and they invested some colossal resources. However, these major matches hinge on very little. It’s worth remembering that our victory against Team New Zealand in 2007 amounted to one second! Look at Roger Federer who lost in New York due to a match ball 3mm outside the line; would he have won with a ball 3mm closer? One thing for sure is that there’s absolutely no comparison between 6-7 knots of wind at 4° or 6-7 knots of wind at 25°. The ripples and the thermal breeze in RAK, for which Alinghi 5 was built, have nothing in common with the north-westerly swell in Valencia. We never had the chance to use our greatest potential which was our headsails. They had a massive resource, their aft wing, which is effective in all conditions and notably the strong, changeable ones in Valencia, by adapting the shape in the most efficient way, to the point that headsails were no longer needed. On this wing mast, there is no compression in the mainsail as it is self-supporting, and not being compressed the stay is hard to control; that’s why as soon as they could avoid carrying a headsail, they continued to use just the wing sail on its own. Meantime, with our traditional mast, all our strength was in the headsail: the advantage of the traditional rig is that you can tension the stay. However, our G zero, which was our best sail, could never be used there, whilst it worked wonderfully in RAK and got used three out of four times. Just as I’ve always said, I would have found it hard not to accept a victory or a defeat on the water, as that’s what it all boils down to, but that doesn’t mean we should forget all the rest.
What is Alinghi gearing up for now?
On our return to Switzerland we kissed goodbye to the America’s Cup, which was important. Every sailor needs to take a break. You have to regain your strength, assess the situation, and weigh up who is with you and who isn’t. As such we can turn the page, without closing the book. And then, on Lake Geneva, the adventure is continuing: Alinghi will once again defend its Décision 35 title in the Challenge Julius Baer. At the same time, we’re intending to turn our attentions to all the major oceanic circuits, whether it’s that of the MOD70s which Stève Ravussin wants to launch or the Audi MedCup, the Maxi class, the Oman 100 and even the Volvo Ocean Race, why not? We have to weigh up our options and find one which enables us to make best use of our assets and our potential. Within the Alinghi team there are some people who cannot be ignored in professional sailing, sailors and people who have developed some high performance systems. Swiss sailing has reached a level we couldn’t have even dreamed of ten years ago.
And what about the 34th America’s Cup?
Whilst Oracle spent more than two years criticising our view of the Cup and claimed to have a model which was a lot better, we’re still waiting for them to explain what it actually consists of. Remember that after our two victories, we immediately presented a programme, so as the Cup community could prepare for it effectively and put forward some strong challengers. They’re making everyone wait, and during this time they’re recruiting the best elements, notably at Alinghi. Unfortunately, we can’t hold onto a hundred people without knowing when and what we’ll employ them for. I stated on my arrival in Geneva that if the game was fair and there were strong challengers and clear rules, Alinghi would do it again.
Have you and Russell Coutts buried the hatchet?
In Valencia, after their victory, I shook the hand of Russell Coutts and Larry Ellison, and I didn’t have a hatchet in the other hand.
The Bertarelli Foundation, a patron of Swiss sailing
The Bertarelli Foundation has started a fine initiative for Swiss sailing! In collaboration with Swiss Sailing and the UBS Foundation for the social and training domain, the annual “Bourses Alinghi” has been created in order to finance sailing projects and initiatives in Switzerland. An annual grant of 50,000 Swiss Francs will thus be respectively allocated to three project categories: Elite for semi-professional, professional and Olympic sportsmen and women; Junior for public and private schools, sailing schools and watersports clubs, etc; Social Action for disabled, elderly or disadvantaged persons. It is imperative that the projects are submitted before 23 April 2010. Those selected will be unveiled on 9 May.