Rounding The First Marker America's Cup

January 22, 1995|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,Sun Staff Writer

San Diego -- John Bertrand, the Australian who won the America's Cup in 1983, attempted to put the defender and challenger trials in perspective after his oneAustralia had lost a one-point race to Team New Zealand last week in the first round-robin race.

"It was just one day of racing," said Bertrand, back in these trials for the first time since beating Dennis Conner and Liberty off Newport, R.I. "What you have to realize is that this is a sailing marathon, and where you start the regatta might not have much bearing on where you finish it."

But with the first leg of the four-month regatta complete, it still appears, as Win New Zealand skipper Chris Dickson said, "The rich get richer, and the rest get the leftovers."

Among the three defense syndicates, the Maine-based PACT '95 team, led by John Marshall and Kevin Mahaney, appears to be well prepared and ready to race after winning the first round of the Citizen Cup defender trials.

Team Dennis Conner, led by the San Diego skipper who has won the America's Cup more times than any man alive, has sailed a quirky series, with Paul Cayard replacing Conner at the wheel in several races.

And America3, the only women's team ever to compete in these trials, appears to have gone backward since beating Conner and Stars and Stripes in the first race 10 days ago.

The women

"If I were the sailing coach of America3," said Ron Rosenberg, PACT '95's sailing coach and team captain of the 1992 U.S. Olympic sailing team, "I'd be pretty disappointed at what I saw them do against us in Young America -- after they had nine months of training.

"Tactically, they are average at best, and their crew work is barely average. Overall, I don't think they have improved a bit since the worlds."

In the International America's Cup Class world championships sailed here last fall, America3 finished second to Bertrand's oneAustralia.

But its boat, which was built for the 1992 America's Cup, has had a hard time staying with Stars and Stripes and Young America, both built for these trials.

At times, Rosenberg said, the women have been tentative at mark roundings and slow to attack their opponents when possible.

"They are being conservative, and that costs you ground on the race course," Rosenberg said. "You have to know your limits and react at the outer edge of those limits."

Peter Blake, chief of sailing operations for Team New Zealand, said that the syndicates that are doing well have "that big thick log of experience," and the women's team does not.

"Experience is vital; you can't win without it," said Blake, a veteran of several Whitbread Round the World races and hundreds of big-boat regattas. "You can't start a bunch of rookies and expect to win. It won't happen. Life is not like that."

But even if America3 were to lose every race from here on in the four round robins, it still would qualify for the defender semifinals starting March 18. Point totals will determine seedings in semifinals.

"The points in these early rounds really are not that important," said Vincent Moeyersoms, president of the America3 Foundation. "That always was the plan, to come out with the faster boat when it counts and suffer with less than an optimum performance in the early rounds."

America3 expects delivery of a new boat in late February, when the point value of victories escalates to four and seven points in the third and fourth round robins, respectively.

Victories in the first two rounds are worth one and two points, respectively.

"Our goal all along was to learn as much as we could about the other boats," Moeyersoms said, "and to keep the crews climbing the experience curve -- to make the mistakes early rather than when it really counts."

Blake is skeptical whether any crew that hasn't had a lot of big-boat experience can come in and seriously challenge those crews that have it.

"You won't work anyone into shape in nine months," said Blake. "Nine years, maybe, yes."

The men

While America3 has had its problems, Team Dennis Conner has been better, except for the first race, in which a pre-start penalty put Stars and Stripes in a hole from which it could not recover.

Still, Conner's strategy is hard to figure. While Young America has gone full bore from Day 1, Stars and Stripes seems to have been experimenting in the first round.

"We still don't know where our boat is [in terms of optimum performance]," said Cayard, skipper of 1992 Cup challenger Il Moro II of Italy. "But it seems to be pretty good in the light air at the moment -- but if we pull the right strings or push the right buttons, things could change immediately."

Conner said that while Cayard has been sailing the boat, he has been concentrating on improving sail shape and determining which buttons and strings should be manipulated when.

"Obviously, when you have someone [Cayard] that good, you're a darn fool if you don't let him race," Conner said. "I am fortunate to have those assets, and if there is a better sailor in the world, I don't know who it is."

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