RALEIGH — A small group headquartered here has launched a long-shot legal bid against one of the world's richest men - Oracle CEO Larry Ellison - for the right to challenge him to become the defender of the America's Cup.
Yes, that America's Cup, the one with billionaires on massive racing yachts.
Yes, landlocked Raleigh.
And without a billionaire or, for now at least, a yacht anywhere to be seen.
If that isn't enough, the nonprofit African Diaspora Maritime Corp. wants to do it all while teaching about and promoting yacht racing - a notoriously white sport - to black youth as a catalyst to spur interest in technology, science and math, which all play huge roles in developing race yachts. The corporation wants to tie all of that to the long, but seldom-taught, history of black mariners.
"The African-American community needs to sort of branch out and participate in everything, and we have a rich maritime history," said Charles Kithcart, 47, a former crew member of a research ship who heads ADM.
"OK, the America's Cup is viewed as something for rich people, and elite and unattainable. But if you start to get people to participate in that, it shatters that box and lets people think outside of it and accomplish things."
ADM, which has set up headquarters in two modest office rooms near Fayetteville Street, is clearly not short of enthusiasm. But it has been short on money - the main ingredient of the America's Cup. ADM has come up with enough, though, to hire what has become a second crucial ingredient in modern Cup campaigns: high-powered lawyers.
The Cup is now controlled by Golden Gate Yacht Club in San Francisco. The series to determine the challenger and the finals are scheduled there in 2013 as the culmination of a program of events estimated to cost $300 million.
Ellison, whose BMW Oracle Racing team won the Cup while representing GGYC, has the fifth-largest fortune in the world, nearly $40 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He said he spent $200 million on his unsuccessful attempt to win the Cup in 2007, and many think he spent even more to win in 2010, an effort that included essentially running his own boat factory and a massive, months-long legal battle in the same court where ADM is challenging.
In short, Ellison is unlikely to surrender quietly.
Kithcart is perfectly aware of that. ADM's high-powered international law firm, McDermott Will & Emery, filed a lawsuit shortly before Christmas in the Supreme Court of the State of New York asserting that GGYC improperly tossed out ADM's application to vie with Ellison to become the defender of the Cup. ADM seeks damages including the right to compete to be defender, two 44-foot practice catamarans, cash damages in excess of $1 million and removal of GGYC as the Cup's trustee.
GGYC responded with a motion to dismiss, and late last week ADM filed a response to block the dismissal.
'Utterly without merit'
The yacht club said the Raleigh group didn't have the resources to be a legitimate Cup team.
"Obviously, we think the complaint is utterly without merit, and we'll defend it vigorously and feel that we will prevail," said GGYC vice commodore Tom Ehman, a major figure in America's Cup administration for decades and one of Ellison's closest advisers on Cup matters.
In a news release issued after ADM filed the suit, Ehman said, "You only have to read the last paragraph of the complaint to realize what this is really about."
That paragraph accuses GGYC of not properly sharing with competitors the rights to valuable San Francisco waterfront property that are part of the deal with the city to host the Cup racing.
Kithcart scoffed at any notion that ADM wants to shake down Ellison.
"We have our own plans to make money," he said. "If they had let us in, and let us do what we were going to do, we would have made it or not made it on our own merits. It's not a question of, give us money. They're the governing body, and it's a question of them getting out of our way and letting us make money."
Cory E. Friedman, a New York lawyer who specializes in general and maritime litigation and is an expert in the arcane branch of law surrounding the Cup, said Kithcart faces long odds.
But ADM stands a good chance of beating the motion to dismiss, and that incremental victory could provide the would-be Cup defenders with a public relations bonanza, Friedman said.
"It could be used as a tremendous propaganda win, allowing Mr. Kithcart to go to potential sponsors and the newspapers and say look, we have a legitimate case here, this is real," Friedman said
ADM's ambitious plans include educational boat parks in downtown Raleigh and in Charlotte, a launch of its eventual race boat in Wilmington and a training camp on Radio Island, adjacent to Morehead City.
A big question swirling around sailing circles is where Kithcart is getting the money for such an expensive legal battle. He declined to name donors, but said some money was coming from people who don't like Ellison and some from people who really like what ADM wants to do.
From hockey to sailing
Kithcart was born in Fayetteville - his parents are from Dallas, N.C. - but lived most of his life elsewhere.
He said his imagination for sailing was ignited when, walking the docks in Newport, R.I., in 1988, he saw the 120-foot Cup challenger Shamrock V, built in 1930 for tea magnate Sir Thomas Lipton and widely considered to be among the most beautiful traditional sailing yachts afloat. Later, Kithcart said, he was hired as part of the boat's crew for charters. And he spent time with various America's Cup campaigns, he said, including a position with the 1992 winner, America 3, doing outreach work.
Kithcart said the idea of basing a Cup challenge in North Carolina came to him after what then seemed like an unlikely spectacle: the Carolina Hurricanes winning the Stanley Cup.
Also, he thought government officials and potential donors here might be less jaded and more jazzed than those in places such as California, where he couldn't get much interest. He said he has had
positive meetings here with a host of state and local officials.
Kithcart wasn't a sailor with the Cup campaigns he hung around, and he describes his sailing skills as "decent but not great." He wouldn't sail on the ADM race team, he said. His place would be on shore, keeping the organization on track.
He named several sailors - some black, some white - he has talked with about joining the team if it can clear the legal hurdles. One of those is Polish professional Karol Jablonski, one of the world's top skippers in the art of one-on-one match racing, which is how the main Cup races are run.
In addition to lining up potential sailors, Kithcart, who speaks about the Cup and ADM's plans with evangelical zeal, said he also is lining up potential backers and eyeing Raleigh land on which to build his educational boat park.
For now, he said, the group has to focus on the legal battle. If he can beat Ellison in court, though, Kithcart said he will do his best to prove ADM is a viable, real Cup effort that could bring something to yachting: the sort of wattage that Tiger Woods brought to golf and Serena and Venus Williams brought to tennis.
"We could give people those goose bump moments," he said. "We're going to turn on a website in a couple of days, and people are going to look at this stuff and say, there is some substance to this battle. It isn't just a made-up thing."