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Sometimes, the Long Arm Is Too Long

Ah, yes, the law. The law, in all its majesty, has gone to sea. Not maritime law. Not salvage, lifeboats, moorings, but landlubbers’ law. The worst kind. It’ll have us all afraid to go to sleep at night before it’s through.

Remember when the only sports law was the umpire, the referee, maybe a commissioner? Well, think of those as the good old days.

The long arm of the law has reached into ocean racing now. I’m not sure if that’s what the English knights had in mind when they drew up the Magna Charta.

As the Red Queen said in “Alice in Wonderland,” the law means “precisely what I take it to mean, neither nothing more nor nothing less.”

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Comes now a justice of the New York Supreme Court who holds that a boat race last September violates “the spirit” of the rules set forth for the competition of the America’s Cup yacht competition.

Since these rules were first set down more than a century ago, you have to marvel at the legal clairvoyance involved to come up with an interpretation of what a lot of dead men meant. Not what they said, mind you. What they said has been amended twice in the intervening century to permit design variations in the type of yachts entered in the competition. Never mind, says the judge: “The import is clear. Although design variations are permitted, the vessels should be somewhat evenly matched.”

What?! Tell that to Thomas Lipton whose vessels got so thoroughly trounced by Harold Vanderbilt that they were about as evenly matched as a canoe and the Queen Mary.

What happened this time was that Dennis Conner and the San Diego Yacht Club won the America’s Cup fair and square at Fremantle, the enemy’s waters, two years ago. He hasn’t lost it on the water since, only in the courts. The New York courts, traditional custodian of the Cup since 1887 when a New York Yacht Club member amended the Deed of Gift of the Cup, has ruled San Diego didn’t play fair with New Zealand when it fielded a faster, radical-design yacht to brush off a premature, unwanted challenge to its Cup last year.

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If you think New York was ripped to lose the Dodgers and the Giants to California, that was practically a shrug to the froth on the mouth of the Long Island yachtsmen to lose the America’s Cup to a bunch of San Diego surfers. The New York Yacht Club even filed a brief in favor of New Zealand’s argument in the present case. How’s that for patriotic solidarity?

Anyway, isn’t victory by legal writ an unfair design variation?

Never mind. The legal pooh-bahs are now the high priests of our society, the modern day equivalent of the scribes and Pharisees. I’m just glad they weren’t always so potent on the high seas. Can’t you just see the consequences? Consider if the following headline stories hit print in the past:

“NEW YORK, June 1779--The State Supreme Court ruled today the victory of John Paul Jones over the British frigate, Serapis, was illegal because the American captain tied his ship to the vanquished vessel before boarding her by force.

“The colonies were forced to give back the victory and forfeit independence and the 13 ‘states’ were ordered to return to their original status as subjects to King George III. The judge also considered punitive damages treble and said she might also take up the case of the Boston Tea Party as an act of piracy since the British ship was tied up in the Boston Harbor at the time. The British should not only get their tea back but Bunker Hill, too.”

“WASHINGTON, 1864--The Supreme Court of the (half) United States today ruled the outcome of the battle of the ironclads, Monitor and Merrimac, to be in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution because the Monitor constituted a design change not contemplated by the spirit of the rules of naval warfare as set down by the Phoenicians in the year 2003 before the common era.

“The courts ruled the victory had to be awarded to the Merrimac which had to be raised from the bottom of Norfolk harbor and refitted and the Union armies had to abandon ground they had gained as a result of protection by the Monitor in keeping the sea lanes open. The Monitor was ordered mothballed by the court and her crew interned for the duration. The Union was ordered to pay for the salvage and refitting of the Merrimac and pledge to fight the rest of the war in wooden ships and War of 1812 cannon.”

“SAN FRANCISCO, 1898--The Spanish-American war was awarded to the King of Spain, and Cuba was ordered returned to him, as the Appellate Court of California today upheld a lower-court ruling that Admiral Dewey illegally trapped the Spanish fleet twice, once by bottling up Santiago harbor with a deliberately scuttled vessel and again in Manila by employing a tactic known as ‘crossing the T’ to obliterate the enemy fleet.

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“In neither case did Admiral Dewey give written notification to the Spaniards of his intent, violating the legal principle of discovery and depriving them of their civil rights. The argument that the Spanish sailors were non-citizens not entitled to provisions of American law was dismissed as frivolous. Dewey was ordered to evacuate the Philippines.”

“BRISTOL, England, 1943--The British Navy was ordered by His Majesty’s court today to make restitution to Germany for the sinking of the Bismarck by air power.

“The magistrates ruled that ships should be sunk by ships. To the charge that British men o’ war were being sunk by submarines, the court retorted sternly: ‘We expect the German courts will shortly rule on that. We have laid the matter before the Nazi high command and they have assured us they will take the matter under advisement. But, regardless of what others have done we must abide by the traditions of the British Admiralty. Sir Francis Drake would never stoop to attack by air even if it meant the sun would set on the British Empire.’ ”

“MIDWAY ISLAND, 1943--The Battle of Midway was ordered restaged today by a special panel of high court justices who ruled that the Japanese fleet was inveigled into a battle that they thought would be fought only by conventional warships and that the introduction of aircraft carriers to deliver the decisive blow was in violation of the spirit of combat on the high seas.

“If the Americans had forwarded a battle plan showing the existence of the flattops, the Japanese contended, they would not have been slickered into the challenge. They demanded the return of Midway and asked the court to rule the presence of the aircraft carriers constituted a ‘gross mismatch’ not envisioned by the fair play seafaring men. They wanted Pearl Harbor in compensation.”

In the future, why doesn’t the America’s Cup just eliminate the middle men, the yachtsmen and the yachts, and go directly to the real antagonists, the lawyers. These guys make Morgan the Pirate look chicken.


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