California Cashes In As Yachtie Circus Comes To Town
Sunday Express 2nd February 1992
EVEN the Stars and Stripes looks as if it has fluttered off the catwalk. The red is pure Valentino, the white straight from Calvin Klein's spring collection and the blue, the deep designer blue of the Pacific. No wonder Ralph Lauren is dressing the America's Cup.
Time was when the biggest noise in the 1,OPO-member San Diego Yacht Club was the swish of the swizzle stick in the ladies' Tanqueray martinis. The club was a genteel aberration in the sixth largest city in America.
Not any more. Now it's the yachtie centre of the universe, where the international wet set look at the girls and lust after the boats.
The huge, grey warships from San Diego's navy town past still dominate the waterline, but now they are next to luxury yachts. The city, which used to be famous for being a golf round from Mexico, expects to profit by over more than one billion dollars from the 1992 America's Cup. Suddenly this Californian city is bristling with wealth and glamour. The sort of girls have arrived who look as if they are straight out of Hollywood casting.
But in this high-powered world even the most beautiful supporters are just extras when yacht skippers can earn £500,000 a year and the racing magnates have wives and daughters as sleek as their yachts, and egos to match their oversized wallets.
There is no doubt that the main action centres on the upmarket members of yachting's Billionaire Boys' Club, who are prepared to jet off to London, Rome, Sydney or Tokyo for a meeting, and then spin around like a taxi to return to the quest for "The Auld Mug".
Stefanie Rafanelli talks like Tracey Ullman. She looks like that other Stefanie in Monte Carlo and also has a father worth many millions of dollars. She's sipping a diet Coke at the Yacht Club during a lunch break from her job at the America's Cup record office.
She's 18, wearing her official blue jacket and white jeans. She's also laughing and enjoying herself.
Tom Wilson, a club executive and a proud custodian of the America's Cup which San Diego's Dennis Conner held on to after his controversial joust on land and sea with New Zealand millionaire Sir Michael Fay four years ago, was looking over at the cheerful, lively girl.
"It's people like her that are changing the whole fuddy-duddy image of yachting and the Cup. It's no longer just about what happens on the water."
When the Cup was held for so long at Newport, Rhode Island, it was bolted down to its plinth. It took a revolutionary New Zealand yacht keel and a tool box to prise it free.
Newport was an institution. The crews and the sponsors, the groupies, the yachting fans and the plain curious all found themselves packed into one street.
Here the action is all over the city. Eight international teams are at present racing for the Louis Vuitton Cup, donated by France's top-drawer LVMH (Louis Vuitton Mpet Hennessy). The victor also wins the right to challenge the U.S. in May.
Conner and American multimillionaire William Koch are racing for the right to try to keep the 141-year-old America's Cup out of the hands of teams representing France, Italy, Australia (two teams), Japan, Spain, New Zealand and Sweden.
And all the town loves the rich sailors who between them are investing more than $350 million dollars in the races for the Cup. Moet et Chandon is, not surprisingly, the bubbly of choice — the Cup's official 'champagne.
Givenchy is a sponsor along with Louis Vuitton — represented by the ebullient Bruno Trouble.
"The Cup in San Diego is turning into a major social event People have flown in from Paris and Singapore — from everywhere for the parties," he said.
There's Moliere at the Old Globe Theatre. The San Diego Opera have just finished a run of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier and next week The Marriage of Figaro begins.
The suites at the luxury Lowes Coranado Bay Resort and the new Le Mendien Hotel, both close to the venerable Hotel del Coranado where Mrs Simpson first met the Prince of Wales, are full. So are most hotels in town.
There's a European elan about the place Across America stores are dosing in the recession. Here new branches of Gucci, Alfred Dunhill, Tiffany and Ferragamo open next week.
Along Fifth Avenue has grown a restaurant row. At Croce's, one of several restaurants owned by Ingrid Croce, the widow of the late singer Jim Croce, chef. Fay Nakamshi has produced an exotic Japanese/Italian menu which is the gourmet talk of the town. Across the street is Caruso's where, yes, you do get Etnas with the pasta.
One intrusion everyone talks about is smoking- California is by choice pretty much a smokeless zone but the international set have brought tobacco clouds back to the streets.
Stefanie Rafanelli's father Gabriele Rafanelli, 52, is relaxing at his home next to the San Diego Yacht Club.
He is the moneyman organiser, the producer, of Italian billionaire Raul Gardini's well rated attempt to take the America's Cup to the Compagnia della Vella yacht club in Venice.
"We are here because we believe we can win. I would not be here for any other reason. We are spending forty, fifty million dollars but I believe you can do this with style and not waste money."
Others have estimated Gardini's Italian syndicate, II Moro de Venezia,to have spent more than $80 million on the races.
Rafanelli, the vice-president of International Marine Industries, the world's largest marine supply company, is married to the former Susan Bowmaker whose father owned the Pascal Atkey ship chandlery in Cowes.
The family live in Ryde on the Isle of Wight but have homes in Italy including a farm in Tuscany. His sister, Gloria Santini, is Chianti shipper to the world. Economic conditions made him decide to give up his AGS Formula One racing team but Steve Soper drives for his Bigazzi BMW M3 Touring Cars team.
"I do this for no remuneration but for the pleasure," he said. "And you know for the British I am the closest connected. We should be your favourite."
All over the city you can buy America's Cup merchandise from gaudy T-shirts to $500-dol-lar framed posters.
The only black market is in the Italian team's sweatshirts and sweaters which are selling for around $250 dollars.
"We have just one sponsor [Montedison, the petrochemical conglomerate] and we didn't feel there was any need to mer Paolazzi looking splendid in cashmere and Cartier.
But the Italians, like the other competitors, are not in it simply for panache. Gabriele Rafanelli estimates that to win the America's Cup would be worth more than $250 million dollars in ongoing public relations. And the odds are that they will sail against the defending American team in May.
"It will either be Italy or New Zealand," says Tom Wilson, sipping a soda water back at the yacht club. "This is important for everyone. The Cup is special — it's as if it glows in the dark. It adds a little magic to the place.
"A winner? The odds are against America and certainly against Dennis Conner. He's trying to compete against teams with a lot more resources."
Conner, 49, has had a budget of less than $15 million while old money East Coast Bill Koch who is challenging him for the honour of defending the Cup is using at least $30 million more.
Conner is the local favourite son, the sailors' sailor. But even as defending champion in Stars and Stripes he is dreadfully underfunded.
The grey whales migrating down the Pacific coast here to the birthing grounds of Baja California are not the only ones now making waves around this town of billionaires in brine.
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