A former America’s Cup executive is launching a new international regatta, the Golden Gate Yacht Racing Challenge, which will be sailed annually on San Francisco Bay beginning in July 2017 in an updated version of the venerable 12-meter class.
Tom Ehman, who most recently had been with the America’s Cup Event Authority, said he wants to restore stability and style to yacht racing. The regatta will offer yacht racing’s largest purse, $500,000; have a strict nationality rule; and be contested in the strong, steady breeze that blows in through the Golden Gate Bridge.
Ehman said he envisions the Golden Gate Challenge as the Wimbledon of yacht racing in that it will be held every year at the same venue. Unlike the America’s Cup, all teams will be challengers, meaning they’ll start on equal footing each year.
The Golden Gate Yacht Racing Challenge is being planned at a time when the America’s Cup has lost some of its luster and is being criticized by many in sailing for abandoning its traditions.
Oracle Team USA, then based in San Francisco, successfully defended the America’s Cup in 2013 in one of the greatest comebacks in sports, in 72-foot catamarans. When San Francisco officials didn’t offer the same terms for the next regatta, cup officials put the venue up for bid and picked Bermuda. Teams and the event itself are struggling to secure sponsorships to offset the staggering cost of competing.
Ehman said he hopes to attract team owners who have been priced out of the America’s Cup or turned off by recent turmoil.
“This is an opportunity to do something for the sport and the former cup community,” Ehman said from San Francisco.
Italian billionaire Patrizio Bertelli recently pulled his Luna Rossa Challenge out of the America’s Cup after an unprecedented mid-course move to reduce the size of the catamarans for 2017. Emirates Team New Zealand and Team France are struggling to raise money. If they drop out, there will be only three challengers.
Frenchman Bruno Trouble, an America’s Cup skipper during the 12-meter era who helped found the Louis Vuitton Cup for challengers in 1983, recently said the America’s Cup has turned into “a vulgar beach event smelling of sunscreen and french fries.”
Ehman said he’s working to secure event sponsors and teams.
“I think this is the best venue in the world for showcasing yacht racing and that was shown in the last cup,” he said. “There’s a crying need in the world of yacht racing for such an event, especially in monohulls and especially in a lot of breeze. We’re seeing that because of what’s happening or not happening in other parts of the sport and in other parts of the world.”
While Ehman hopes to attract some big-name owners and skippers, the star of the regatta could be the 12-meters. They were used in what many consider the golden era of the America’s Cup, from 1958-87, when bigger-than-life personalities such as Dennis Conner and Ted Turner dominated racing held in Newport, Rhode Island, and then Fremantle, Australia.
The 12-meter era ended when Conner won back the America’s Cup in the big wind and waves off Fremantle in 1987.
Ehman remains vice commodore of the Golden Gate Yacht Club, which is the America’s Cup trustee. He said his regatta is not affiliated with the GGYC and won’t compete with the America’s Cup.
“I think the America’s Cup is off on its own and always has been,” Ehman said. “The America’s Cup will survive the current situation. There is obviously strong interest in monohull racing with strong teams, in boats everyone has heard of and loves. There is a nostalgia and romance with the 12-meters, and to have those boats racing in a lot of breeze on San Francisco Bay where people can watch it, it will remind people of how great the America’s Cup was in Fremantle in 1987 in windy conditions in 12s.”
Ehman said he’s having designers look at modernizing the 12s and hopes to keep the cost below $3 million per boat. All boats would have the same hull shape, which would make the regatta a test of sailing skill rather than a design competition, helping to hold down costs.
He’d like the hull to look like Freedom, which Conner sailed to victory in the 1980 America’s Cup.
Beyond the cost of a boat, Ehman believes a team can compete in the Golden Gate Challenge for less than $1 million a year, far less than staging an America’s Cup campaign.
by Bernie Wilson