AC followers looked slightly uncomfortable when they travelled to Plymouth to attend a hurriedly organised press conference revealing venues for the America’s Cup World Series. David Glenn muses on a an unexpected turn of events
(Pictures: aerial view of Plymouth Sound; Richard Worth announces to a stunned press corps that Plymouth will host the second America’s Cup World Series Regatta as Vivien Pengelly, leader of Plymouth City Council and Anthony Payne, the council’s acting chief executive, can barely believe their luck; the statue Sir Francis Drake on The Hoe overlooking Plymouth Sound.)
Securing round two of the America’s Cup World Series is a terrific coup for the city of Plymouth and for yachting in the UK as a whole. But it’s all been a bit unexpected, to say the least. Late last week I was telephoned by Tim Jeffery, the communications director of Cup holders Oracle, to see if I was free for what was clearly a very hastily arranged press conference in Plymouth. “You do mean Plymouth, Devon?” I asked incredulously. Afterall, it was April 1.
Sure enough the following day in a small room on the top floor of the Holiday Inn (overlooking Plymouth Sound) Richard Worth of the America’s Cup Event Authority explained to an unusually limited number of reporters just how the America’s Cup World Series would work and that Plymouth had secured the second round (after Cascais in Portugal) of what the association considered yachting’s Formula 1.
He revealed that ACEA had 14 confirmed challengers and that as far as the authority was concerned Plymouth was: “The perfect venue, the best sailing stadium anywhere in the world.” Phew! It all seemed so bizarre – we’re normally in Sicily, Valencia, San Francisco or Rome for announcements like this. But here we were on a very grey day in Devon in a city almost known for The Pilgrims (aka Plymouth Argyle FC), the re-fuelling of nuclear submarines at Devonport and Francis Drake (great statue on The Hoe), listening to the unlikely news that the biggest show in sailing was about to land on the city’s doorstep.
Plans for the America’s Cup World Series seemed to have stalled but final details couldn’t be put in place until the entry deadline on March 31. With 15 teams the building programme for the AC45s in New Zealand will be at full stretch to meet the deadline for the first regatta in Cascais, Portugal in August and this late rush of entries has pushed the programme back – at least that’s what we’re told. But then the circus rolls into Plymouth for a ten-day regatta from 8 September 2011.
Vivien Pengelly, leader of Plymouth City Council, could barely contain her excitement when her turn came to speak at the Holiday Inn gathering and the acting chief executive of the city council Anthony Payne must have thought he was dreaming when they calculated that the potential income to the city could be in the region of £10 million over 20 or so days in September.
In the current climate of cut backs and public sector decimation one had to take one’s hat off to the bold burghers of Plymouth who have not only been burning the midnight oil, but will surely come in for some stick for shelling out what is thought to be a large seven figure fee for the privilege of hosting a yacht race. But Plymouth has undoubtedly got the show on the cheap and the council executives quickly saw an opportunity for their ambitious regeneration plans to turn what is still, in places, a pretty tacky urban sprawl into a ‘Waterfront City’ by 2020. This couldn’t be a better springboard they figured.
All sorts of funds have been visited to raise the money from the City Growth Fund to the Homes and Communities Agency and organisations like Destination Plymouth, Plymouth Waterfront Partnership and the local chamber of commerce are putting their weight firmly behind the event. “There’s a range of little places we can go to get the money,” Anthony Payne assured us. A shrewd move was to work with the impressive University of Plymouth which just happens to be holding its graduation event on The Hoe (the wide tract of elevated land overlooking Plymouth Sound) before the World Series, so that ACEA can make use of the marquees. Any weddings out there keen to leap onto the bandwagon?
I trained in Plymouth and have a genuine soft-spot for a community with a fascinating maritime history and a terrific spirit. The coastline is sublime, Dartmoor’s on your doorstep, so are the surf beaches to the north, the beer’s damn good, it’s the home of Plymouth Gin and the fish and chips on the Barbican are second to none. There are 22 yacht clubs (!) and just by chance the new Barrett Homes Plymouth Race Week regatta (7-10 July) is kicking off this year.
Plymouth was bombed flat in World War 11 and the architects weren’t at their most imaginative when it came to re-building. It’s taken a long time to get back on its feet. The recent re-development of the University of Plymouth has given the community a much needed shot in the arm and at last it’s beginning to look half decent although towards Millbay Docks where the America’s Cup Series will be based (I still can’t believe I’m saying that…) the fabric of the place is pretty rough and there’s precious little time to change that.
But that’s hardly the point. Standing atop the Holiday Inn (opened in the 1960s and still a city landmark) overlooking Plymouth Sound it isn’t difficult to imagine why the ACEA like the look of the venue. It is simply a natural amphitheatre and with the AC45 catamarans restricted to a tiny race course there is the potential for a huge spectator count ashore.
I asked whether ACEA had realised that the regatta period between 8-18 September was getting mighty close to the equinox and had they factored in the chances of a gale at that time of the year? We’ve known tents at the Southampton Boat Show take off at that time of year. AC45s are designed to sail in 3-30 knots we were assured. It’s not the wind strength that will stop them, it’s the sea state and the protection afforded by Plymouth’s fine breakwater to say nothing of Drake’s Island should keep them up and running.
National Boat Shows are going to despair over the timing because it runs over the first week end of the Southampton Boat Show which I predict could be empty on Sunday September 18 when the 15-strong fleet race will be taking place in Plymouth. It’s an unfortunate clash. Cascais, incidentally, clashes with the Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week.
But with a Rolex Fastnet this year, the extraordinary news of the America’s Cup event in Plymouth the following month and an amazing Olympic year beckoning in 2012 Britain has suddenly stepped onto yachting’s global stage and into the limelight that goes with it. Let’s just hope GBR can live up to the hype and get behind these events with the enthusiasm they deserve.