SAN FRANCISCO -- "I just want to integrate a sport that really needs some integration," Charles Kithcart said with more than a twinge of frustration in his voice.
Kithcart is the founder of African Diaspora Maritime, a North Carolina-based organization dedicated to getting more African Americans involved in yacht racing, a sport that tends to be cultural shorthand for "wealthy and white." His dream is to build a multicultural team of sailors to compete in the world's premier sailing competition, the America's Cup.
But the group hosting the competition, the Golden Gate Yacht Club, isn't allowing ADM to compete against Oracle Racing, billionaire Larry Ellison's team, for the right to represent the United States when the event comes to the San Francisco Bay next summer.
"We want to compete. We want to participate," said Kithcart, who has submitted the $25,000 entrance fee to the GGYC and lined up legendary yacht designer Dave Pedrick to create his boat. "We don’t want to be excluded. There's a history of exclusion of African Americans in this country, and it doesn't look good when a team of African Americans is excluded from something like this."
Kithcart is suing the GGYC, demanding to be allowed in. The case will soon be heard before the New York Supreme Courtt, which has historically ruled on legal issues related to the America's Cup.
GGYC rejected ADM's bid to participate, according to the complaint, because the club was concerned that ADM "lacked the financial wherewithal to compete." However, ADM charges that bids by other teams in similar financial situations were accepted and, in the months since rejecting ADM's bid, GGYC has lowered the funding requirements for competing teams from $4 million down to $325,000.
When GGYC was awarded the America's Cup in 2010, it did so as a "trustee for the benefit of all potential challengers." ADM argues that, by not giving his organization a fair shake, the club has breached the terms under which it was allowed to host the event.
Representatives from the GGYC, on the other hand, claim they have done nothing wrong.
"The suit is totally and utterly without merit," said Tom Ehman, GGYC's Vice Commodore. "At best it's a PR stunt, and at worst it's holding us up for money."
Ehman explained that ADM's application made it clear that the team simply didn't have the resources to make such an enormous commitment. "We're under no obligation to accept multiple teams," he said, noting the club refunded ADM's entrance fee after rejecting its application. "It's a huge distraction when teams compete without the proper preparation, only to get immediately walked all over. It could easily end up with one of the boats getting damaged or the sailors getting hurt."
Kithcart admits his pockets aren't as deep as the team backed by the sixth richest person in the world, who reportedly spent $400 million to win the cup in 2010. But Kithcart insisted money isn't the sole predictor of success on the water.
"You can't make the boat go faster by showing it your bank account," he said with a laugh, adding that his team has three former Olympic sailors and multiple world champions.
Ellison has been the face of the San Francisco America's Cup since day one. Losing his team's opportunity to defend the cup against international challengers would be awkward, to say the least. However, despite Kithcart's confidence, it's acknowledged within the world of sailing that no one -- let alone a team of upstarts from landlocked Raleigh, N.C. -- has much of a shot against a team that won the cup so decisively three years ago. Race organizers expect up to six teams will end up competing in the challengers series.
"My feeling is that all Oracle has to do to blow the Diaspora team out of the water is to ask them to produce a boat," said boat designer and former Yacht Report Magazine editor Roger Marshall. "In order to have everything ready in time for the race, they'd have to start building by next week or so."
At the moment, ADM doesn't have a vessel in which to race. Kithcart had hoped that getting into the America's Cup would have drummed up enough buzz to raise the necessary funds for a boat. Since that hasn't happened, he's hoping instead for legal remedy. But there may not even be enough time after the court's ruling to have a boat built.
Kithcart argues that even if ADM does come up short, just being allowed to participate in the competition would be a victory.
"We want to create media buzz around African Americans integrating a traditionally white sport," he said, suggesting that putting a team of black sailors up against the best in the world would create a level of interest similar to that generated by the 1988 Jamaican Olympic bobsled team, as depicted in the movie "Cool Runnings."
"Besides," he added, "what would it hurt to have another team in the mix?"
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