Underfunded teams find you need more than wind to win America's Cup

Outdoors

February 04, 1992|By Peter Baker

In San Diego, a slew of 75-foot yachts and several hundred skippers, tacticians, crew and riggers, designers and builders have gathered for the five-month festival known as the America's Cup.

Two American groups are competing for the right to defend the oldest international trophy in modern sport. Eight foreign groups are assembled to joust for the right to challenge the American defender.

At the moment, the trouble is that it appears that four of the challenge groups -- two from Australia and the teams from Spain and Sweden -- might just as well pack up and head home.

In the quick analysis, after only one of three round-robin series in the challenger trials, those four groups haven't the wherewithal to play in the same league with New Zealand, Japan, France or Italy.

In the long-term analysis, based on challenges in the past two legitimate America's Cup regattas (1983 and 1987), fiscal strength has become the crucial element in winning this competition.

Going back to 1983, when seven challengers showed up in Newport, R.I., Australian Alan Bond's millions, the late Ben Lexcen's design and Dr. Peter van Oossanen's testing tank in the Netherlands produced the winged keel Australia II and snatched the Cup from the United States for the only time since 1851.

In 1987, when 13 challengers, including six American groups, invaded Fremantle, Australia, to challenge, it was Corporate America's funding of Dennis Conner's Sail America group and aerospace bottom coatings on Stars and Stripes that helped get the Cup back.

In the years since Fremantle, an unorthodox challenge by New Zealand's Michael Fay, with a 132-foot monohull, resulted in a carnival defense by a catamaran and a court battle over interpretation of the Cup's Deed of Gift.

The Deed of Gift is a 100-year-old document that sets out general rules for competition between moguls with enough money to build, outfit and campaign yachts in a loosely gentlemanly manner.

Now the credo seems to be "Damn the sportsmanship, full speed ahead."

There is, after all, a $500 million windfall in tourism and America's Cup money awaiting the winner of this regatta, which then will be held in the winner's home country three or four years hence.

In America's Cups before 1983, for which Lexcen prepared with several months of research in the Netherlands, boats, sails, crew, equipment, etc., were expected to be produced in the home country of either challenger or defender.

But the business of winged keels, 132-foot sloops and nTC catamarans, and Bond, Fay and Conner caused a revolution in the America's Cup, and that upheaval has brought about the creation of the International America's Cup Class of 75-foot racing yachts.

It would seem that a new design class would put challengers and defenders on equal ground at the outset -- and perhaps it did. But then the modern moguls began to open their checkbooks and gained ground quickly.

In the case of Japan, New Zealand and Italy, the money is not all going to R&D, training and equipment. It also is going to hired guns, big-name skippers who have signed on as adoptive nationals.

Japan has Chris Dickson, who in 1987 sailed for New Zealand and gave Conner and Stars and Stripes a run for their money in the fiberglass Kiwi Magic.

Italy has Paul Cayard, a top-flight American sailor who in 1987 was the tactician aboard the late Tom Blackaller's USA. Italy has German Frers, an Argentine designer, and John Kolius, who in 1987 sailed for the New York Yacht Club and has served Italy as training skipper.

New Zealand has Rod Davis, who in 1987 skippered Eagle, an American challenger.

To its credit, France has put together a French team led by Marc Pajot, who in 1987 knocked the NYYC's America II syndicate out of the challenger semifinals.

Among those top four groups, more than $155 million has been budgeted. Italy's $60 million budget is $12 million more than the total budgeted by Sweden, Spain, Spirit of Australia and Challenge Australia.

Among the top four, there are as many as 15 Cup boats that have been built or will be built for this campaign, with Italy leading the way with four and perhaps a fifth. Among the bottom four, there will be perhaps five, with only Spain contemplating a second boat.

After the first round of seven races, Japan and New Zealand each has lost one race; France and Italy each has lost two. Spirit of Australia won three races before withdrawing to rework its keel; Spain won twice; Sweden won once and Challenge of Australia was winless.

Perhaps better than won-lost records is a comparison that can be made from Sunday's final races of the first round:

France and Italy, the third and fourth boats in the standings, raced 20.3 miles and France won by 25 seconds. New Zealand (tied for first) and Sweden (seventh) sailed a pickup race because their scheduled opponents chose not to start, and New Zealand won by 9 minutes, 57 seconds.

In the first round, a victory was worth one point, in the second round (Feb. 13-25) a victory will be worth four points, and a victory in the third round (March 8-19) will be worth eight points.

Points are cumulative, so predicting what will happen over the next two round robins before the semifinals begin March 29 becomes a little tricky.

But you can almost bank on New Zealand, Japan, Italy and France being in the final four, with only Spirit of Australia having a slight chance to knock one of the top four out.

In the America's Cup these days, money seems to talk and sportsmanship seems to walk.

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