SAN DIEGO -- Three days into the Louis Vuitton Cup, there already was talk of a critical race yesterday between Team New Zealand and Win New Zealand, each of which was undefeated in the challenger trials for the America's Cup.
It may seem absurd that such an early race carry much, if any, importance in a four-month regatta.
But yesterday Team New Zealand constructed an early yardstick by which every challenger syndicate in town can measure its progress.
In winds from 5 to 6 knots and unsettled seas, Team New Zealand and skipper Russell Coutts started the second race of the day 10 minutes behind the first pair, oneAustralia and Sydney '95 -- and finished the 18.55-nautical-mile course ahead of Sydney '95 and less than a minute behind oneAustralia.
In the process, Coutts beat Win New Zealand and skipper Chris Dickson by 4 minutes, 42 seconds.
For other challengers, the significance of such an easy victory in fluky conditions is that Coutts is sailing the second and last of two boats that can be built by each team for these races, and Dickson is sailing the only boat his group can afford to build.
From this point on, alterations to competing boats are limited by rule, and Team New Zealand probably showed its best possible light air performance yesterday.
What also is impressive is that Dickson and Coutts are both three-time world match-racing champions, and Coutts dusted Dickson.
"Team New Zealand did a great job out there and they are to be congratulated," said Dickson. "It was one of those days when the rich got richer and the rest of us got the leftovers."
While the skills of Dickson and Coutts should be well matched on normal days, their challenge syndicates are opposites.
Coutts has the backing of the posh Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron; Dickson's Tutukaka South Pacific Yacht Club operates out of a pub in a small fishing village.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger has sailed with Coutts' team and wears the team's colors. The country's major corporations -- including Steinlager beer, New Zealand Toyota and state-owned Television New Zealand and Lotto -- are backing the boat officially named Black Magic.
Dickson, however, has placed his bets on one major sponsor, watchmaker TAG Heuer, and the genius of Annapolis-based, New-Zealand born naval architect Bruce Farr.
In relatively heavy winds Sunday, Dickson made his debut in these eliminations by soundly defeating Nippon Challenge.
But yesterday Dickson proved to be vulnerable in light winds.
"Not a good day," Dickson said after crossing the finish line.
Not good at all, really. Win New Zealand (1-1) appeared slower than its opponent on all points of sail, and its crew work was poor.
Only one of three spinnaker sets was accomplished without incident, and the first, entering the second leg of the race, erased any chance Dickson had of catching up.
After an even start, Team New Zealand and Coutts built a lead of 1 minute, 26 seconds by the top of the first leg, and already was within 2 minutes of Sydney '95.
"We managed to get quite a jump on them at the start," said Simon Daubney, a trimmer aboard Team New Zealand. "It was a really patchy day out there, and when they made that bad spinnaker set on the first downwind leg, we made another great jump there.
"Basically that was the race."
Rounding the first mark, Dickson's crew lost the spinnaker halyard, and sailed more than eight minutes into the first downwind leg without a spinnaker set.
During a jibe on the last leg, Steve Cotton, a 27-year-old yacht rigger from Toowoomba, Australia, got his left hand caught in a spinnaker turning block and lost the fleshy tops of the index and middle fingers.
"It is one of those things that happen on these boats," said Dickson, who had Cotton taken aboard a chase boat and run into San Diego while the race was still under way. "You hope it doesn't happen too often, but there are incredible loads on these boats and it can be dangerous out there."
Cotton, who sailed with Dickson in the last Whitbread Round the World Race, was taken to a local hospital and was undergoing surgery last night.
In two of the three challenger races yesterday, oneAustralia (1-1) defeated Sydney '95 (2-1), and Nippon Challenge (2-1) defeated France (0-3).