Raleigh group's hopes of joining America's Cup race still alive

A North Carolina man hoping to launch a racially integrated team in the America’s Cup sailing race has won the right to go forward with his lawsuit against the yacht club that denied his application.

Charles Kithcart, head of the Raleigh-based nonprofit African Diaspora Maritime Corp., claimed in a suit filed in December 2011 that the Golden Gate Yacht Club didn’t give fair consideration to his application to race for the 34th America’s Cup, scheduled to be held this September. Kirthcart’s suit claimed that by not considering the application in good faith before denying it, the yacht club had breached its contract with African Diaspora Maritime.

A New York court initially dismissed the claim and two others Kithcart made in the suit, but an appeals court late last month sent the case back to be heard on the breach-of-contract claim. A trial date has not been set.

Kithcart viewed the America’s Cup race as a half-billion-dollar economic development opportunity for North Carolina, a new way to interest school kids in complex math and science, and a chance to share the history of African Americans’ mastery of the water that dates to before the Civil War.

Beyond all that, the denial of his bid to challenge the billionaire whose team won the America’s Cup in 2010 was, to Kithcart, a betrayal of basic American principles.

“To tell someone, ‘No, you can’t compete. No, you can’t chase your dream,’ that should be disturbing to any person in America,” Kithcart said. “It’s a question of what we stand for. If you have qualified people who are applying to participate in something, you should let them.”

In denying Kithcart’s application, the Golden Gate Yacht Club claimed Kithcart had not paid the $25,000 entry fee on time, that he didn’t have a boat designer lined up, and that he would not have the money to fund a team, all points his lawyers deny.

Kithcart and his attorneys say the court’s decision to let the case go forward will give them a chance to find out whether there were other reasons the club denied the application.

Golden Gate Yacht Club officials and their attorney did not return calls or emails asking for comment.

African Diaspora’s plans

The America’s Cup, first awarded in 1851, is the premier sailing competition in the world. Though the final races are held between two sailing yachts, the vessels represent different yacht clubs, and the Cup is awarded to the club.

Yachts can compete for the right to defend the Cup on behalf of the club and for the right to challenge the holder of the Cup. A series of elimination races determines which two yachts will compete in the final America’s Cup contest, itself a series of 17 races.

Kithcart had planned for African Diaspora Maritime to race in the defender series to try to upset Oracle Team USA, backed by Larry Ellison, billionaire founder and CEO of Oracle Corp., the computer hardware and software company.

Kithcart didn’t say how much an America’s Cup entry would cost African Diaspora but said he had financial backers ready to help pay for yacht design and construction and for crews and training. He had plans to market the team in North Carolina and beyond, selling caps and T-shirts and putting a racing yacht on display in downtown Raleigh to generate excitement.

Pre-Cup demonstrations and training activities on North Carolina waterways could have filled hotels and restaurants, Kithcart said, and broadened interest in a sport that is often considered a pastime of the rich.

Blacks’ history at sea vast

In fact, African Americans were among the most sought-after watermen along North Carolina’s coast from the colonial era through Reconstruction, said David Cecelski. The North Carolina native has written several books on the state’s maritime history, including “The Waterman’s Song,” chronicling the world of slave and free black fishermen, pilots, rivermen, sailors, ferrymen and other laborers.

On the water, Africans brought to North Carolina often had an advantage over their white captors, Cecelski said, in that the waterways here more closely resembled coastal parts of Africa than they did the deep waters off the British Isles. Working on the water was grueling labor, and merchants and ship captains often used slaves to do the work, he said. They became very skilled at it.

“It was proverbial in the 18th century,” Cecelski said. “White travelers would not dare go up rivers and explore the waters of North Carolina if they could not find an African-American pilot.”

Cecelski said Kithcart is right that if he tied the present-day race for the America’s Cup into that history, “there would be a lot of interest.”

Hope if race is delayed

Though the 34th America’s Cup is already underway in San Francisco Bay, Kithcart believes he may yet have a chance, if the race is postponed this year. So far, the event has been plagued with problems; hopes for a contest among as many as 11 teams from around the world didn’t materialize, and only three teams – from Sweden, New Zealand and Italy – are competing for the right to challenge Oracle Team USA. They are racing on huge new catamarans, 72 feet long with rigid “wind sails” 132 feet tall, that can rise up out of the water on foils.

In May, Artemis Racing’s catamaran flipped during training and broke into pieces, killing British Olympian Andrew Simpson, who was trapped beneath the wreckage. The team, representing a Swedish yacht club, is still waiting for its boat to be rebuilt.

The Italian team has boycotted the races over new safety rules put into place after the crash.

Only Team New Zealand has run races so far, and it has done so alone.