An historic day, or a PR stunt? The new format America's Cup kicks off in Marseille with the opening ceremony for Act 1.

 Even to the most cynical of spectators, the opening day in Marseille was just like the real thing as the America’s Cup and the Louis Vuitton Cup were followed by six teams representing five nations as they paraded through the historic and picturesque port. Thousands lined the harbour walls and applauded as hundreds of boats formed a flotilla and followed the America’s Cup fleet out onto the water. Any earlier notion that the very first event in the new format America’s Cup series would struggle to raise any interest was blown clean out of the water today.

Tomorrow (Sunday 5 Sept) sees the first of three days of fleet racing in Act 1 of the 2004 America’s Cup season and while some have questioned whether the America’s Cup can really function outside the more familiar four year cycle, the reality is that the French public at least is as keen on major sailing events as ever and provided the series with the best possible start.

All day, thousands of people paraded along the dockside walls where the fleet of six boats AC were moored. Exhibition stands, grinding competitions and ‘know your knot’ displays drew the crowds in numbers that many other major sailing events only dream of as roads were closed to created a huge pedestrian area at the heart of this town. There may have been concerns over whether Marseille, a city that lost its bid to host the main event in 2007, was really the right place to kick off the start of a new era, but the reality proved different. As it turned out, sailing mad France was the best place to launch the biggest and most radical change in America’s Cup history. The event itself and the longer term focus may be on Valencia but from today, Cup racing really is in Europe.

So who’s out on the water tomorrow?

Alinghi and BMW Oracle, the Defender and Challenger of record will be familiar sights and apart from some changes in their graphics and a few design tweaks here and there, to most spectators, both will look much as they did in 2003 in Auckland. The Swiss will be sailing SUI-64 and the BMW Oracle team will be racing USA-76.

The New Zealanders will be out on the water too with NZL-82, a boat that on the face of it at least, now looks uncannily similar to the boat that beat them 5-0 in 2003 thanks to the new bold red graphics of their prime sponsors, Emirates airlines.

The French have two teams present, Le Defi sailing FRA-69, another boat from the last Cup and K-Challenge who formally announced their challenge for the 2007 event yesterday and are sailing NZL57, the sistership to one of the most famous modern America’s Cup boats, NZL60 which was used for the Kiwi’s successful defence in 2000. A boat that in its day set a new bench mark in America’s Cup design.

But if marks were to be awarded for the most striking of graphics, Team Shosholoza, the South African syndicate skippered by Geoff Meeks would win hands down. They too are sailing a 2000 generation boat RSA48, formerly Prada’s ITA-48 and the boat that won the 2000 Louis Vuitton Cup.

Act 1 runs from 5-11 Sept, the first three days being fleet racing. Wed 8 Sept is a reserve day and then it’s on to match racing for 9-11 Sept.

Racing is due to start at 1240 local tomorrow, assuming the weather plays ball.