SAN DIEGO -- After nearly four months of elimination races and an expenditure of some $500 million, the America's Cup begins shortly after noon today in the Pacific Ocean.
What once was a field of nine teams is down to two -- the challenger, Il Moro di Venezia, and the defender, America3.
What has evolved through 163 elimination races now will be decided by a best-of-seven series sailed in the capricious winds and sloppy seas off Point Loma.
If the winds are either light or heavy, the edge in the series should go to Il Moro. If the winds are moderate, America3 should be favored.
Since midway in the defender finals against Dennis Conner and Stars & Stripes, the America3 team has made modifications to its keel and rudders to improve its performance in light air.
"We are worried about the challenger, and we wanted to configure our boat so that, hopefully, it will be faster in all conditions than Italy," Bill Koch, America3 skipper and syndicate head, said yesterday. "We don't know if it will be.
"We think that now we have an extremely good keel, good rudder and mast as the result of last-minute tank testing, wind-tunnel testing, etc. We did not have time to go out and test it on the water, but I am 98 percent confident that all those changes were for the good because our predictive tools are good."
Koch, an America's Cup rookie whose syndicate has spent some $65 million to defend the cup, has built his campaign on American talent, teamwork and technology, the three elements that led him to name his group America3 (as in cubed). Along the way, his team has designed a boat that may be as much as 90 seconds faster around the 22.6-nautical-mile course than Il Moro.
Paul Cayard, the San Franciscan hired to skipper Italian industrialist Raul Gardini's Il Moro, said America3 may be a better boat because the defender did not have to declare which boat would sail in the cup finals until the last minute. The challengers had to declare on Jan. 24.
"America3 is a very good boat, and it has taken full advantage of that rule," Cayard said. "The defender has about a two-month design advantage, and there are a lot of good ideas taken from observations of all the challengers and Stars & Stripes and even America3's own boats. . . .
"It could be that their boat is faster than our boat, but that is nothing new and doesn't change our outlook. We think it is going to be a good boat race."
The boats, bright red Il Moro and the white America3, are an interesting contrast in design approaches to the International America's Cup Class that is making its debut in cup competition.
Il Moro is wide-bodied and carries a larger sail area than America3, which is narrow and designed to handle choppier seas better than the Italian boat. Il Moro's flared hull and wide beam give it the advantage in light and heavy air.
"We have a different hull shape, although I think we are both at the heavy end of the spectrum," Koch said. "I think we both have good sea-keeping abilities. Our keels are significantly different, our rudders are different and our masts are different.
"So, I think you will see a very interesting comparison out there between the Italian technology and the American technology."
While America3 has spent the past week modifying the boat that beat Stars & Stripes, 7-4, in the defender finals, the Italians have been fine-tuning their sailing skills and thinking about tactics. "The entry fee to this regatta is boat speed, and once you have that paid, then you can sail hard," Cayard said.
Sailing hard is something Cayard has done well in this regatta, culminating with a 5-3 defeat of New Zealand in the challenger finals after trailing 4-1.
"We were up against the wall, and we kept focused, and we got time to improve [tactics and crew work], and we were the survivor," Cayard said. "In the end, we had the best net sum, and we still have that."
Cayard also might have the edge in match-racing skills, an unusual blend of aggression and caution that allows one boat to control the course of its opponent through positioning on the race course.
"There have been different styles of racing out there," Cayard said. "A lot of the skippers on the challenger side are used to being on the match racing circuit and racing real tight."
In four or five races during the challenger eliminations, Cayard said, the outcome was decided by five or fewer seconds. In many races, opponents were not separated by more than 10 seconds over 20 miles. "That's just our style," Cayard said.
Koch and his helmsman, Buddy Melges, a two-time Olympic medalist, said they have tried all combinations of match race tactics. They say they will not hesitate to mix it up like dinghy sailors in rented boats.
"We found that we had to adapt our tactics to three things -- the weather, the sea conditions and the competitor," Koch said. "You adapt not only to the playing field, but to whom you are playing against."
Facts and figures
What: The 1992 America's Cup, a best-of-seven match-racing series between a foreign challenger (Italy) and a U.S. defender (America3)
Where: Pacific Ocean, off San Diego
When: Today, tomorrow, Tuesday, Thursday, and May 16, 17 and 19, if the series goes seven races
TV: Today's Race 1 will be on ABC. The rest of the cup series will be on ESPN. Race starts are scheduled for 3 p.m.