x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The race begins now for RAK

There are 178 days precisely until the first gun is fired to mark the start of the 33rd America's Cup in Ras al Khaimah, but the race is now on to create a venue that can sit proudly in the Cup's rich but rocky heritage.

The Al Hamra village area , as seen from Al Hamra Marina in RAK, will be the site the America's Cup race village.
The Al Hamra village area , as seen from Al Hamra Marina in RAK, will be the site the America's Cup race village.

There are 178 days precisely until the first gun is fired to mark the start of the 33rd America's Cup in Ras al Khaimah, but the race is now on to create a venue that can sit proudly in the Cup's rich but rocky heritage. It came as a surprise to the sailing community when RAK was chosen as the venue for the February 2010 regatta. Most expected the best-of-three head-to-head contest between two vast and fast multihulls Alinghi and BMW Oracle to take place in the Spanish port of Valencia where Alinghi triumphed in a multi-challenger event in 2007.

The UAE, though mentioned in dispatches, had no connection with yacht racing and none of the features associated traditionally with America's Cup venues such as lively, but steady breezes, big expanses of marinas and boatyards and endless rows of glitzy waterfront hotels. But as a result of personal ties with members of the Alinghi team headed up by Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, RAK became one of three venue "possibles" with Oman and Abu Dhabi also in contention, all of them driven by a desire to host big sporting events and increase tourist traffic.

Each was presented with a list of Alinghi's requirements with the weather and sailing conditions dominating not just the early agenda, but all subsequent conversations. Of secondary importance were the levels of support by the regional governments and the marina facilities including hard standing, cranes and access plus hospitality provision, to accommodate sponsors, VIPs and media. Feasibility papers had to be submitted by the end of June, but Oman dropped out because they could not guarantee construction in time.

Alinghi announced their decision two weeks ago. It was an intense process, according to those involved, but it was the wind range of between seven and 15 knots plus government backing that swung it for the once sleepy emirate of RAK. "The weather in Ras al Khaimah gives suitable sailing conditions in February, but we can't be too precise about what we were looking for - we don't want to give any advantage to BMW Oracle," said Alinghi spokesman PacoLatorre.

"The wind range needed to be acceptable for these boats to sail in. Alinghi is not like the catamarans that do ocean courses - it is high tech and light - so we needed to be certain about the wind ranges and the stability of the weather not just in the three days of racing, but throughout the whole training period. That was not possible in Valencia in February." Work to complete the infrastructure at the 22 hectare Al Hamra resort island, where the race village will be based, must be completed by September when training commences under an agreement signed between the RAK governSheikh Saqr bin Mohammed and Alinghi, led by Grant Simmer, design team coordinator.

No venue fee changed hands, but the hosts agreed to fund the creation of the infrastructure, which is likely to cost more than US$50million (Dh183.7m) though with the largest cement factory in the UAE housed within its boundaries, capable of producing one million tonnes of concrete each year, there will be no problems sourcing raw materials. The 33rd America's Cup will not be like your average America's Cup. This one is purely about a sporting contest not any commercial gain which is regrettable say Alinghi but necessary due to the two years of court hearings and appeals which started when BMW Oracle contested Alinghi's acceptance of Club Nautico Español de Vela as official challenger and disputed their set of rules for the Cup.

"It is important to understand that the model for this America's Cup has nothing to do with the previous one," says Latorre. "This is about the sailing. We will try as hard as possible to get sponsors and to attract media coverage, but the priorities this time are different and opportunities are reduced. It is difficult to predict how many spectators they'll be because there is no precedent in the UAE for a sailing event."

It might only be two boats, three races and light winds, but the 33rd America's Cup is likely to go down as one of the most spectacular in history. sports@thenational.ae