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Russians Have Sights, but Not Sails, Set on America’s Cup : Sailing: Age of Russia crewmen arrive in San Diego, confident they will be challenging for the cup.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Passengers disembarking from USAir Flight 2164 Saturday morning at Lindbergh Field had to wonder what was causing such a commotion.

A flood of cameras, reporters and a handful of America’s Cup officials had waited over an hour for the flight that would carry crewmen from the Age of Russia, one of two Russian syndicates vying for a chance to compete in the world’s premier regatta starting in January.

But that wasn’t nearly as long as the Age of Russia entourage had been waiting to get here. Weary crew members--17 flew standby from Seattle and arrived in the morning, and 12 to 17 more were on a later flight--touched San Diego soil after leaving Moscow sometime Thursday.

“We apologize for our appearance,” said Commodore Ernst Grakovsky. “We want to thank the San Diego people for a warm welcome. It’s unfortunate the boat didn’t make it with the team.”

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The boat, on board an Aeroflot cargo plane, was detained in Anchorage, Alaska, for lack of landing rights and after a 15-hour wait was sent back to Havarovsk, a Siberian city on the China border.

According to Marina Kopel, the syndicate’s U.S. representative, the Department of Transportation sent the boat back because Aeroflot’s account at CitiBank in New York hadn’t received the $150,000 check transferred from an account in Liechtenstein. Once the check clears, which Kopel said it will Monday, Aeroflot will have to forward its request to Moscow for permission to return the plane from Havarovsk to San Diego.

Kopel said, “Someone made a mistake, basically,” in allowing the plane to leave Moscow in the first place. The cost of that oversight and the second attempt to get the plane to San Diego--in addition to the $150,000--will cost Age of Russia, $50,000 to $60,000. Footing the bill are sponsors VEK company and Vladimir Koulbida, the syndicate’s president.

Originally, Age of Russia’s boat was to arrive in San Diego in early December, but Kopel said lack of fuel delayed the trip a couple of weeks.

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So, the ongoing soap opera of the America’s Cup continues . . . The America’s Cup Organizing Committee recognizes Red Star ’92, not Age of Russia, as Russia’s legitimate challenger. Yet each syndicate insists it is the group that will represent Russia when the challenger trials begins Jan. 25.

“As you know and I know,” said Kopel, “Red Star has the legal challenge and Age of Russia has the boat.”

While Age of Russia suffers transportation woes, Red Star’s problems go deeper. There is speculation that the Red Star boat, being built in Tallinn, Estonia, is further behind schedule than its spokesmen want to admit.

But Jenik Radon, a New York-based attorney who has provided counsel for Red Star, said he is in frequent contact with syndicate leader Oleg Larionov and construction of the boat, aside from a temporary setback after a truckload of carbon fiber material was hijacked earlier in the week, is moving along nicely.

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“We are putting the finishing touches on the boat and expect it to arrive in early January,” Radon said.

Radon also put to rest a bizarre statement made Saturday by Kopel, who was translating for Koulbida and said that Koulbida is “the general sponsor of both syndicates.”

“That’s ridiculous. He’s not with our syndicate,” Radon said.

Chris Haver, the Director of Syndicate Operations for Knight & Carver Yacht Center, found the statement equally odd, but hoped to get it clarified at a meeting this morning with Kopel and Koulbida.

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“I had never heard that before,” he said. “I don’t know what legal leg they have to stand on. But anything can happen. I can’t imagine Koulbida spending all the money to get the crew here and the boat here unless he had something up his sleeve.”

Although the ACOC declared Red Star the syndicate of record on Nov. 27, Age of Russia has the backing of Russian Federation vice president Alexander Rutskoi and therefore the support of the government, Kopel said.

“We have the Russian government support,” Kopel said. “Rutskoi is the honorary president of Age of Russia and there are sufficient documents that will show ACOC that Age of Russia is the legitimate challenger.”

But ACOC officials said Kopel and the organizers behind the syndicate are missing the point.

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“That would be like the U.S. government saying it wanted Dennis Conner to be the official syndicate of United States,” said Anne Sandison, ACOC executive assistant. “Well, so what? It’s not up to them.”

It’s up to the Ocean Racing Club of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to determine which syndicate is legitimate. The ORCL, Russia’s sponsoring yacht club, did that in late November in a letter to Tom Ehman, ACOC executive vice president.

“For a yacht club to be a valid challenger, it has to be recognized by the government,” Ehman said, who added that “out of frustration, if not desperation,” he wrote a letter to Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin for help. Late in November he received a response from the first deputy of the Russian parliament that said the ORCL did exist and remained the valid challenger.

And since the ORCL has identified Red Star as its syndicate, Age of Russia is out of luck, although Ehman has offered ACOC help and has encouraged the two sides to merge their efforts to ensure that Russia is represented.

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“It’s hard to imagine how difficult it is under those conditions to mount a campaign,” Ehman said. “It’s difficult under normal conditions. For them to get as far as they have, I’m impressed with their determination in trying to get here and participate. We stand ready to assist.”

In a letter to Koulbida, Ehman said, “We once again urge you to pool your resources with Ocean Racing Club Leningrad. Your determined efforts and proven resources can only strengthen the Russian challenge.”

But both sides balk at the idea.

“No,” Kopel said when the idea was proposed. “The ORCL will forward its right to race this event to the Age of Russia.”

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Fat chance, said Radon.

“I’ve always found the question peculiar,” he said. “Like someone else is working on something then you’re trying to come in a make a deal. I don’t see why we have to work together. If they want to let us use their boat, fine. Until then, it’s just not an issue.”


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