SAN FRANCISCO -- Opening weekend of the America's Cup has turned into a fiasco, with regatta officials on Friday grounding the racing sailboats from Friday's water parade and timed trials because of strong winds and the Italian team refusing to participate in Sunday's first day of racing.
The rest of the regatta, which runs through mid-September, remains in limbo as an international jury of sailing experts is planning to hear protests from the New Zealand and Italian teams Monday. Those teams contend new safety rules favor defender champion Oracle Team USA and Sweden's Artemis Racing team, which lost a crewman during a tragic capsize in San Francisco Bay in May.
Max Sirena, skipper of Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge team, says principles, not politics, are the reason his team won't sail in Sunday's first race of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series round robin. He contends that a list of safety rules imposed by the regatta director after the tragedy, especially the ones changing the size and shape of the rudder winglets, put them at a disadvantage. Sirena said he wants the jury to resolve the issues first.
"We are here to race, and we are here to race with fair rules," Sirena during a packed news conference at America's Cup Park on the transformed Piers 27/29. "I have to do the best thing for my team. I just feel this is an unfair change in the class rules one week before the event."
In a grand gesture to show he has no personal animosity toward regatta director Iain Murray who imposed the new rules, Sirena stood up and shook his hand.
But Oracle Team USA CEO Russell Coutts called Luna Rossa, sponsored by Italian fashion house Prada, "a bunch of spoiled little rich kids dressed in Prada."
He said they are protesting the rules to favor themselves and "clearly they're trying to influence the jury" by refusing to race Sunday.
"He can say what he wants," Sirena said later in the day. "He's way more rich than me, trust me."
John Bertrand, the famed first skipper to break the Americans' 132-year winning streak when his Australia II won the Cup in 1983, watched the press conference and said afterward that the infighting is nothing new.
"Nothing's changed," said Bertrand, who was in San Francisco for Friday night's black tie gala thrown by Louis Vuitton, sponsor of the challenger series that has been thrown into turmoil.
In fact, Bertrand said, the night before the 1983 America's Cup match between Bertrand's Australian team and the Dennis Conner's "Liberty," the host New York Yacht Club voted to cancel the entire match because the board believed Australia's secret "winged keel" didn't abide by the class rules. At the last moment, the board allowed racing to begin.
"The stakes are always high and there's always miscommunication and mistrust with people in this environment," Bertrand said. "This is not war, it's a sport. But people take it pretty seriously."
In the middle of the press conference, Louis Vuitton spokesman Bruno Trouble asked Murray why the international jury couldn't hear the protest before Sunday's race, but was given no clear answer other than the jury has been in town since Wednesday and sets its own schedule.
"It's very embarrassing not to see Italy," participate in the first race, Trouble said.
When the 34th America's Cup was first envisioned in San Francisco, billionaire Larry Ellison, who won the Cup in 2010 and the right to bring it to his home port, predicted more than a dozen boats would participate in the Louis Vuitton Cup, which runs through early September. Only three signed up, however: Emirates Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa and Artemis Racing.
After Artemis capsized and destroyed its boat, the team announced its second boat under construction wouldn't be ready to race until the Louis Vuitton semifinals in August. That leaves only the New Zealand and Italian teams to race each other in the round-robin portion of the series this month. And now Luna Rossa won't race Sunday.
Adding more drama to the controversy, Artemis CEO Paul Cayard said if New Zealand and Luna Rossa win their protest, "Artemis Racing will be excluded from the competition."
Cayard, a San Francisco native, explained in a news release Thursday that his team has built rudders for its new boat to comply with the safety rules and don't have a set that would be like the ones his two opponents have: "So I ask, who is trying to force whom out of the 34th America's Cup?"
Murray's new safety rules also lowered the wind speeds for safe racing and on Friday he used those rules to cancel the time trials, which would have allowed tourists and sailing fans to watch the AC72s round the marks for the first time just off Marina Green and Pier 27. Murray said the wind was blowing at 23 knots (about 26 mph) in the morning and was expected to build through the day. The boats have been criticized as "overpowered" because of their 130-foot wing sail.
When asked what spectators should think about the unmet expectations so far, Murray said he is confident the America's Cup will be thrilling once it gets under way.
"You're probably in line to see some of the most amazing sailing that's ever happened in the world. With the complexity (of the AC72s), it may never happen again," he said. "I would urge you to stay patient, stay with us and be prepared for quite a show in the coming months."