With all attention focused on blades moving across hard water these last weeks, overlooked is the fact that Round 2 of America's Cup racing -- the sport of blades moving over soft water -- has been proceeding in the city that knows no winter, San Diego.
The Americans last week completed Defender Round 2 of racing with more twists and turns than a loose-jointed ice dance.
Going into the round, Bill Koch's America3 syndicate held most of the cards. Its newer boat, Defiant, was leading Stars & Stripes, having beaten Dennis Conner's midnight blue boat in three straight races during Round 1.
Conner had beaten another Koch boat, Jayhawk, 3-0, in that round. But here we are in a disposable age, and Jayhawk already was on her way to the America's Cup junkyard when Conner was beating her in January.
Jayhawk was being retired to make way for a brand new Koch entry, called by the syndicate name, America3. So as the second round started on Feb. 8, Koch had two new boats on the water to Conner's one and only Stars & Stripes.
During the layup period, Conner hauled Stars & Stripes out to do a radical remake of the underbody, trying a two-foil keel configuration that a computer said looked fast.
But on the water, America3 showed the Conner camp that the new design was a dog that wouldn't hunt. Both Koch boats hammered Stars & Stripes so thoroughly that the sailing team that won the Cup for San Diego in 1987 had to beg for mercy. Or at least for permission to change back to approximately what it had in the first round.
Under the rules, after the boat is measured for the round, it may not be altered. But Koch's group quickly saw the futility of competing against a boat it could beat without trying, so it granted Conner permission.
Only in the America's Cup . . . and perhaps only someone with the promotional eye of Stars & Stripes would make an event out of showing off a losing underbody design, but last Friday that's just what the Stars & Stripes folks did.
While the ESPN cameras hummed away, and with sponsors' logos emblazoned on the largely discredited appendages, Stars & Stripes dropped the skirts around her underbody to reveal the following, explained thus by the syndicate's design team:
" . . . Two foils which support a long, slender bulb between them. The design creates two high-aspect ratio surfaces. The boat is steered with the foils. Without a rudder, there is approximately one-third less wetted surface. It is faster downwind and has less drag."
This, of course, is a theoretical description based on tests in a tow-tank and on two Hobie-33s, one fitted with a similar underbody.
"While the design has merit," Conner said after the obvious failure, "we're short on time to make our idea work. We'll have to wait until after this America's Cup to develop our idea further. These technological ideas need to be supported by time, money and energy. Energy we have, but we are short on time and funds. We will continue our design programs in another direction."
Once the "old" Stars & Stripes was back on the waves this week, it's performance was decidedly better as Conner was able to beat Defiant in two races while losing to America3.
And -- oh, by the way -- Koch has another new boat, his fourth, coming to San Diego. Her design represents what has been learned from the first three.
Such an embarrassment of riches only points up Conner's greatest problem: trying to guess right in a one-boat program. A multiboat program has the luxury of trying new design ideas without altering designs already tested. In this way, the development leapfrogs boat to boat.
Conner said Stars & Stripes plans further modification at the end of this round, but nothing as radical as the one that slowed Stars & Stripes down.
Meanwhile, the eight foreign challengers continue to widen the split between the top group -- Italy, New Zealand, France and Japan -- and the bottom tier -- Spirit Australia, Challenge Australia, Spain and Sweden.
As action got under way this week for the Louis Vuitton Cup (the challenger elimination trials), the two Australian groups were talking about a merger. But they remain as far off the pace as the other two, unable to provide competition for the top-tier group.
On Monday, France and Italy put on the show of the season. Though Marc Pajot in Ville de France led Paul Cayard in Il Moro around nearly the entire race course, Italy crept up on the last leg to steal a 12-second victory.
Japan and New Zealand put on a similar show Tuesday, with New Zealand winning by 14 seconds.
After another month of round-robin racing, the top four-point winners from the first half of the season enter a semifinal round that begins March 29. All points are thrown out as the double-elimination series begins. Final racing for the challenger will be in April, and the winner will face the best American boat in May.