Eligibility dispute puts Japanese challenger in uncharted seas

January 13, 1995|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Sun Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO -- The opening race of the defender trials in the America's Cup was postponed yesterday because of heavy seas and unsafe sailing conditions in the Pacific Ocean off Point Loma.

But though weather has pushed back the start of racing by only a day, a squall of controversy is blowing through the field of challengers -- and it might, in effect, come close to sinking the Nippon Challenge.

The center of the controversy is Peter Gilmour, an Australian by birth who has been the sailing coach for the Japanese team since last January.

Gilmour, easily the most skilled skipper in the Nippon camp and among the best in the world, recently was included on Japan's crew list, which by rule may include only Japanese nationals or residents of Japan.

France and both New Zealand challenger syndicates protested the inclusion of Gilmour in Nippon's on-the-water sailing team and have asked that he be removed.

"We believe that I have dual and in fact multinationality," said Gilmour. "I believe, in fact, that under the rules I could qualify for Italy, Japan, the U.S. or Australia."

In general terms, non-nationals could meet residency requirements by living more than 12 of the 24 months before the May 6 start of the America's Cup match in the country for which they intend to compete. Time spent with Nippon in the United States, for example, is considered time spent in Japan.

The Challenger of Record Committee and America's Cup '95, the groups that control this competition, were scheduled to meet last night to determine Gilmour's eligibility.

Sean Reeves of Team New Zealand said yesterday that Gilmour's on-the-water skill is not an edge to which the Japanese team is entitled.

"We just don't believe that he qualifies under the rules of the regatta to sail for Japan," said Reeves. "He is not a native of Japan and in our view he has not complied with the residency requirements."

Another member of a New Zealand syndicate said the "rules of this competition are structured to guard against those professional sailors who are really soldiers of fortune."

"This is set up, really, as a friendly competition among yacht clubs of different nations," said David Kilponen of Defi '95, the French team. "Unless all the teams are held to those rules, then there might as well not be any rules.

"Otherwise, it could get to the point where you qualify for a U.S. group by just touching down in New York on a flight elsewhere."

If Gilmour, the No. 2-ranked match racing skipper in the world, is not allowed on board Nippon, members of other syndicates said Japan will be much weaker for it.

"You can't replace someone with Gilmour's sailing skills with someone from 'round the corner," said a member of one New Zealand team. "Not that John Cutler and Makota Namba [Nippon's other skippers] aren't good, but Gilmour is a heck of a skipper."

Gilmour said yesterday morning that Japan's strategy almost from the outset has been to include him in the sailing crew.

"Obviously, we have a very strong team and we have devised a lot of strategies, and this was one of them," said Gilmour, who also said yesterday that until several weeks ago he was negotiating with Sydney '95, one of two Australian challenge groups.

"But whether I race or not, we are going to be strong with Cutler, Namba and Peter Evans in the afterguard."

Neither of the Australian challengers has protested Gilmour's alliance with Nippon. But then, oneAustralia has U.S.-born Rod Davis to skipper its upwind legs, and Sydney '95 has British-born Chris Law as primary helmsman.

In fact, Law's eligibility was challenged earlier and approved by CORC and AC '95.

Sources with CORC and AC '95 said yesterday that Gilmour's case is not as easily defined as Law's and the Australian may be prohibited from sailing with Japan.

"Look at it from Nippon's point of view and here is a great resource -- me if you like -- that Japan can possibly use in the America's Cup," Gilmour said.

"Look at it from the point of view of the rest of the competitors and they are trying to destroy the Nippon Challenge.

"Those are the two sides of it."

If his eligibility has not been determined by the start of the challenger eliminations tomorrow, Gilmour said he might start the series in Nippon's afterguard.

If he does and later is declared ineligible, Nippon would be forced to forfeit any victories won.

* The race scheduled yesterday between Team Dennis Conner and America3 has been rescheduled for Jan. 21. TDC and America3 are paired again today, with PACT '95 scheduled to debut tomorrow. . . . The challenger elimination series opens tomorrow, with seedings to be determined today.

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