SAN DIEGO >> Australia is back in the America’s Cup for the first time since 2000 after a challenge by winemaker and sailor Bob Oatley was accepted by software billionaire Larry Ellison.
The challenge by the Hamilton Island Yacht Club, located on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, was announced today.
It was received by the Golden Gate Yacht Club on Wednesday, right after Ellison’s Oracle Team USA retained the America’s Cup by completing a remarkable comeback against Emirates Team New Zealand on San Francisco Bay.
The Hamilton Island Yacht Club will be the challenger of record, helping shape the rules for the 35th America’s Cup along with the GGYC and other challengers.
“Given Australia’s previous success in the America’s Cup, the Admiral’s Cup and Olympic yachting, and as proud Australians, we think it is time for our nation to be back in our sport’s pinnacle event,” Oatley said in a statement.
“The recently completed America’s Cup in San Francisco has revolutionized the sport for sailors and fans, and we were excited to see how many Australians played key roles on the teams and in the regatta organization.”
In 1983, Australia II beat Dennis Conner’s Liberty to end the New York Yacht Club’s 132-year winning streak in the America’s Cup.
Australia last challenged for the America’s Cup in 2000, when its low-budget effort was led by skipper Jimmy Spithill, who was then 20.
Spithill, now 34, has since skippered Oracle to consecutive America’s Cup victories.
While Spithill is expected to remain with Oracle Team USA, he’s pleased his country will be back in sailing’s biggest regatta.
“Mate, it’s about time,” Spithill said from San Francisco. “It’s been way too long. There are a lot of great athletes, designers, engineers and boat builders spread throughout all the teams. It’s a great sporting nation. I think we’ll see a real emergence of a lot of different countries getting involved in the cup after what we just witnessed.”
Spithill steered Oracle Team USA’s 72-foot catamaran to eight straight victories to retain the oldest trophy in international sports. Oracle’s winning streak started after Emirates Team New Zealand reached match point with an 8-1 lead.
Spithill was one of four Australians on the 11-man crew of Oracle Team USA, which had only one American onboard for the final 14 races.
One of the other Australians on the crew was strategist Tom Slingsby, who won one of Australia’s three gold medals at the 2012 Olympics. Another Aussie gold medalist, Nathan Outteridge, was skipper of challenger Artemis Racing.
Grant Simmer, the general manager of Oracle Team USA, was navigator for Australia II in 1983. Iain Murray, the regatta director for the 34th America’s Cup, lost the America’s Cup to Conner in 1987 and was aboard oneAustralia when it broke in two and sank off San Diego in 1995 during the challenger trials.
Appearing with his father on an Australian TV show, Sandy Oatley was asked if they’d try to get Spithill for the Australian team.
“We can only hope. But Australia has a lot of great sailors, Jimmy Spithill among them. We also have a lot of great youth coming forward in our Australian Olympic team,” Sandy Oatley said.
“Listen, Oracle Team USA is a fantastic team. It’s been my life the last two campaigns, and winning and defending the cup was amazing,” Spithill told The Associated Press.
“Larry is someone I’ve always looked up to. I mean, he’s always been behind me, never lost faith in me and, more importantly, he’s a good mate of mine. He’s been a big part of my life. I certainly won’t be doing anything without speaking to Larry. He’s the man.”
Oatley has dominated ocean racing in Australia for years with a succession of yachts named Wild Oats, including having won six of the past eight Sydney to Hobart races. An Australian team led by Oatley won the last Admiral’s Cup, widely regarded as the world’s top prize in ocean racing.
As defender, Ellison gets to decide where the next cup is contested. While Ellison has raved about San Francisco Bay as a natural amphitheater, organizers ran into vocal political opposition, lawsuits and community protests over the public cost of the event to the city’s treasury and environment.
Ellison joked last week that the next America’s Cup will be around the Hawaiian island of Lanai, most of which he owns.
The cup could be back in San Francisco, or it could go to Hawaii or the highest bidder. After Oracle won the silver trophy in 2010, there were reports Ellison was interested in holding the regatta in Italy.
Tom Ehman, vice commodore of the GGYC, said his club and the Hamilton Island Yacht Cub are expected to have a protocol for the 35th America’s Cup in place by early next year. That document will have the dates, venues, class of boat and other details.
“We think it’s going to be three years away, but that also has to be decided,” Sandy Oatley said.
There were only three challengers for the 34th America’s Cup.
“After what they just witnessed, people have been re-engaged with the America’s Cup,” Spithill said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, that’s the America’s Cup?’ It’s certainly not what they thought it was. The more teams, the better it is.”