SAN DIEGO -- An engine on an America's Cup boat?
It's a real jaw-dropper to Russell Coutts, one of the most dominant skippers in America's Cup history who now sails for U.S. challenger BMW Oracle Racing.
It's simply a no-brainer to his counterpart and former mate, Brad Butterworth, who leads two-time America's Cup champion Alinghi of Switzerland.
The engine in question isn't to propel Alinghi's 90-foot catamaran, which will face BMW Oracle Racing's equally monstrous trimaran in a best-of-three showdown between the bitter rivals next February for the oldest trophy in international sports.
Rather, it's to provide hydraulic power to help trim the sails on the cat, which sailed for the first time Monday on Lake Geneva.
The use of the engine is the most eye-popping issue in a fight over rules that will go before Justice Shirley Kornreich of the Supreme Court of the State of New York on Tuesday.
"Again, that's just ..." Coutts said Monday, his voice trailing off while sitting in the San Diego boatyard where his syndicate's trimaran is berthed. "As you can see, I'm speechless. An engine in an America's Cup boat? If that's permitted, it will change the game forever, I think, the wrong way."
A twisting two-year court fight between bickering billionaires Larry Ellison of BMW Oracle Racing and Ernesto Bertarelli of Alinghi has led to the rare one-on-one showdown in what will be the fastest, most powerful boats in the 158-year history of the America's Cup.
While both sides say the racing should be spectacular, there's little else they've agreed on.
BMW Oracle Racing contends that Alinghi hasn't provided the rules for the match and that the Swiss have claimed the right to change the rules at any time without mutual consent.
BMW Oracle Racing has asked Kornreich -- whose court has jurisdiction over Cup legal spats -- to order Alinghi to use the Racing Rules of Sailing without alterations or be held in contempt.
The issue that jumps out is the engine. BMW Oracle Racing says it isn't allowed under Rule 52, which covers manual power: "A boat's standing rigging, running rigging, spars and movable hull appendages shall be adjusted and operated only by manual power."
BMW Oracle Racing says the RRS are used by virtually every regatta in the world. The Americans also say Alinghi should be compelled to follow the rules used by its sponsoring yacht club, Societe Nautique Geneve, that were in effect when BMW Oracle Racing issued its challenge in July 2007. Those rules didn't allow the use of an engine to trim sails or move water ballast, BMW Oracle Racing spokesman Tom Ehman said.
Butterworth contends that the Swiss are merely following the Deed of Gift, the 19th century document that governs the basics of the America's Cup and predates the Racing Rules of Sailing.
So while BMW Oracle Racing is relying on crewmen called grinders to turn the winches that trim the sails, the Swiss want to do it with an engine.
"We're moving things hydraulically," Butterworth said by phone after arriving in New York for Tuesday's hearing. "The loads on this boat are just horrendous. A, it's difficult to gear up for something like that, and B, I think it's safer to have that system, where you don't have so many people cluttering the whole boat, and it makes life a little bit safer for the guys that are sailing the boat."
Butterworth joked that the Swiss engine isn't powerful enough to win a motorcycle race. But he said they didn't consider other options for trimming the sails "because this is a bit of a no-brainer. It makes the whole package a lot more reasonable.
"The Cup for me has always been a design race," added Butterworth, who sailed with Coutts through three victorious America's Cup matches, the first two with Team New Zealand and then with Alinghi in 2003. "Now, it's an unlimited design race. This is the most interesting design Cup that's ever been, I think, because there's just no parameters. You can do what you want."
BMW Oracle Racing hopes Kornreich rules from the bench, as she did in May concerning the race dates and other issues.
"This is so blatant that I expect she will," said Coutts, who added that an engine for trimming sails goes against one of the cornerstones of sailing.
"I don't think I'm alone on that one," Coutts said. "I think without doing a survey, I bet the vast majority of people would be against that."
Coutts said trimming the sails aboard BOR 90 sometimes takes all hands except the helmsman.
"The big boats, the big loads, that's part of the physical challenge of sailing any of the Cup boats I've sailed on," he said. "If you take that aspect out, you're changing the game dramatically."
Ehman said the Americans simply want some certainty.
"It's almost less important what the rules are and more important that they stop trying to change the rules on us for their own purposes," he said.