The 2003 America's Cup wasn't even over before the first challenger for the next one announced his intentions. Or should we say hers?
Dawn Riley, three-time Cup veteran and three-time 'round-the-world race competitor from Detroit, is going French for the next Cup, although her language skills by her own admission are shaky. She's signed on as team leader of K-Challenge, a coed, mostly French outfit that will be based in Marseilles and backed by multimillionaire airplane broker Ortwin Kandler.
K-Challenge has no boat, no helmsman and no design team. It knows not where or when the next Cup regatta will be or who will run it and hasn't even decided what French yacht club to represent. But it does have the experienced Riley to put together the sailing team, a $60 million budget and wealthy backer. What more do you need?
Kandler's son Stephan, who will manage operations, said the announcement came early because "we think we're battling against time." He said it's the one thing all Cup campaigns end up needing more of, and he hopes financial partners, sailors and designers will jump aboard his moving ship even if they wonder "where are you taking us, and when?"
By Friday, when K-Challenge made its announcement, it was apparent the next Cup will most likely be in Europe as Swiss challenger Alinghi held a commanding lead in the 31st Cup over defender Team New Zealand. But the prospect of Alinghi as defender raises as many questions as it answers.
From what salt water port would this first Cup winner from a landlocked country elect to race, for example? (Under the 126-year-old Cup Deed of Gift, racing must by rule be on an arm of the sea.)
Pharmaceutical billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, Alinghi's backer, has made it clear it would be somewhere in Europe, either on the Mediterranean or Atlantic coasts, in a place where winds are strong and predictable. Ports in Portugal, Spain and Italy are leading contenders.
It's all part of Bertarelli's strategy to professionalize the Cup should he win, making it better organized and more appealing to commercial sponsors, TV and the general public.
Bertarelli and his aides are too superstitious to talk in detail about the next event before winning this one, but sources say Alinghi would change the rules on a grand scale. For starters, Bertarelli wants to charge a fee to the host city for the right to hold the event and demand that special facilities be built, something that's been tried in the past but never done.
He also wants to shorten the regatta from the current 4 1/2 months to two or three, eliminate noncompetitive teams early or before they even get to the venue, and put challengers' racing and the Cup final under the same umbrella of rules, oversight panels and sponsorship, all of which the defender would control.
As it is, challengers now run their show separately, present a winner, then the defender organizes the Cup match. It's a complicated system that results in dual race committees, two sets of event sponsors, separate TV and radio contracts and other duplication of effort.
Among other likely changes is an end to nationality rules, opening the way for anyone to sail or work on the design or building team for any challenger or defender without establishing residency in the nation represented, as is currently required.
Because all Cup rules other than the basics covered in the Deed of Gift are arrived at by mutual consent between defender and a challenger of record, Alinghi could get away with these changes only if it finds a willing partner. The Swiss have prepared a protocol for the next Cup and shopped it around to various potential challengers, sources say.
No deal has yet been signed, but the leading candidate for challenger of record if Alinghi wins is said to be San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club, which sponsored software billionaire Larry Ellison's Oracle challenge. Ellison plans to come back and he and Bertarelli became friendly here.
Bertarelli is said to be eyeing the summer of 2007 for the America's Cup, so as not to conflict with the 2006 World Cup (soccer) in Germany.
One thing that seems certain to change if the Cup goes to Europe is the number of challengers. If New Zealand were to rally and successfully defend for a second time, observers reckon as few as six challengers might make the long trek to the Southern Hemisphere for the next Cup.
But a shift to the Mediterranean or Atlantic Coast of Europe, bringing in major population areas for commercial sponsors, could raise the number as high as 16, sources say. That's why Bertarelli is considering elimination challenger rounds as early as a year before the Cup to arrive at a more manageable number of competitors for a shortened Cup season.
For decades, Cup followers have complained about the antiquated format of the regatta and the problems it creates. Bertarelli and the highly professional aides he brought from his business to run Alinghi reckon they have the expertise to help the event into the modern world.
Riley, for one, is in favor as long as they don't act precipitously. "Any time you make major changes to a document under pressure," she warned, "the possibility of mistakes is there."
It is good to remember the Cup has lasted 152 years and remains the premier event in sailing. You wouldn't want to change it too much.