Swiss vice-commodore questions whether race officer had authority to start the defining race. Matthew Sheahan reports

An open letter from Fred Meyer, the vice-commodore of Alinghi’s yacht club Societe Nautique de Geneve (SNG) to Principal Race Officer Harold Bennett has questioned whether the second and defining race in the 33rd America’s Cup was valid.

‘From a rules point of view, it is not even clear whether there was truly a race or not on that day,’ he writes.

Following Alinghi and the SNG’s loss of the America’s Cup, the club’s vice-commodore has responded to allegations that members of the SNG supplied race committee objected to Bennett’s decision to start the second race and went on strike.

Until now there has been no public response from the Defending yacht club, but in his letter dated 25 February published on a Swiss sailing web site, Meyer questions whether Bennett had the authority to start the race against the will of the race committee.

The letter makes interesting reading and will doubtless spark hot debate, particularly in light of Meyer’s assessment of the problem’s presented by the spectator fleet and the official aerial footage of the pre-start period. (Click here and fast fwd to 5:00)

But the issue is also one which reveals a potential weakness in the ISAF Racing Rules of Sailing where there appears to be some question as to the definition as to who has the final say when it comes to running the races. The problem appears to lie with the precise definition of a race committee as laid out in rule 90.

Broadly speaking a race committee can include everyone involved in the running of the race from those accepting the entries on the day to mark handlers on the water. Clearly getting a consensus on specific race management matters from such a broad team would be impractical. Instead, the final say on the race course usually comes down to the race officer.

But Meyer’s letter challenges this view.

Shortly after the Cup had been handed over the speculation began as to whether the SNG would claim that Bennett had operated outside his authority by not acting on the views of the committee. Now it seems they have.

In the April issue of YW (on sale 11 March) we take a close look at the controversial second race.

In the meantime, here’s Fred Meyer’s open letter.

Open letter from Société Nautique de Genève vice commodore
Fred Meyer
25 February 2010

Following recent declarations in the media by Harold Bennett, the Principal Race Officer (PRO) for the 33rd America’s Cup Match, we feel obliged to clarify the situation on board the Race Committee boat before the start of Race 2.

SNG as Organising Authority appointed Fred Meyer, Nicolas Grange and Marcel Beauverd to be the Race Committee for the 33rd America’s Cup. Harold Bennett was appointed by ISAF – in agreement with SNG – as PRO. As such, he became the fourth member of the Race Committee.

Under ISAF racing rules of sailing (RRS), the Race Committee conducts the race and makes all decisions relating to it, such as designating the course to be sailed, setting the start line, starting or abandoning the race. The PRO has no specific prerogative and has to operate the race as decided by the Race Committee.

On Sunday 14 February, the wind for most of the day was shifty and uncertain. The sea state was not good as the waves to the North were still above 1m. At 16:00, the wind was gradually establishing from the East but was also dying out and the sea state was still not satisfactory.

At this moment, spectator boats were still in the middle of the start area and there was clearly not enough time to clear the area and launch the race in good conditions. There was a risk of finishing the race after sunset.

The three SNG Race Committee members expressed their opinion to Harold Bennett explaining that the race should not be launched for the following reasons:

– The starting area was not clear of spectator boats

– The sea state was improper (the waves were too high)

– The certainty of racing during day light hours (the last possible warning signal as per the Notice of Race was 16:30) was being jeopardised putting at risk the security of the race yachts and spectator boats. Acting against the opinion of the Race Committee, Harold Bennett unilaterally launched the race. Rather than enforcing the Race Committee decision by physical means, the SNG Race Committee members decided to withdraw and wait below decks.

Launching the race in improper conditions resulted in (i) Alinghi being penalised before the start because it was disturbed by spectator vessels while making its way toward the starting line (ii) the Race Committee boat starboard lay line being impracticable for both racing yachts because of the presence of spectator vessels on the lay line and (iii) high load alarms on both boats sounding continuously during the first leg on starboard because of the sea state.

Fortunately no accidents occurred that day and neither of the boats was damaged. The three SNG Race Committee members however maintain that it was unreasonable, unnecessary and improper to launch the race at that moment. From a rules point of view, it is not even clear whether there was truly a race or not on that day.

Fred Meyer
SNG Vice-Commodore