Wary foes knocked back on their keels

Risk-taking rewarded during wild Round 2

Sailing

November 21, 1999|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,SUN STAFF

In most ways, the second round robin of the Louis Vuitton Cup was sailboat racing as it should be -- high-speed, white-knuckle competition in which the teams eager to sail on the edge won.

During this round of elimination races to determine which boat will challenge Team New Zealand for the America's Cup in February, sails shredded, a mast toppled, steering gear failed often and one multimillion-dollar racer cracked behind the mast and almost sank.

"Well, nothing's safe, but I think that's what [these boats] are built for," Team Dennis Conner skipper Ken Read said last week after a hard-fought victory over AmericaOne. "Two of us proved that you can have a pretty good race and turn this into a sport that people outside of racing can watch."

Read and Team Dennis Conner, known as Stars and Stripes, were matched against Paul Cayard and AmericaOne last Wednesday and were the only pair still racing. Equipment failures had forced the withdrawals of one boat in each of the other four matches.

The waters of Hauraki Gulf off Auckland, New Zealand, were white-capped. Winds were close to the sustained maximum of 18 knots allowed in the regatta and gusting over 20 knots, and it was nip-and-tuck as the two racing yachts hurtled down the last leg.

AmericaOne blew out a spinnaker and set another within 60 seconds.

Stars and Stripes pulled away, but then its boom vang broke, making its mainsail largely ineffective and allowing AmericaOne to close in.

"It's a pretty weird feeling because one moment you're super-excited that you're going that fast. But these boats, as we all know and have seen, are super delicate," said Josh Belsky, who was working the pit on AmericaOne as the 75-foot yacht surfed through closely spaced 6-foot seas at 15 knots.

"These boats tend to load up when you dig the bow into a wave and you get 2 feet of green water coming back into the cockpit. You try to put that out of your mind and just hope you're going to come through OK in the end."

Near the end of their race, however, AmericaOne fouled Stars and Stripes during a spirited gybing duel and was required to make a penalty turn on the course while Team Dennis Conner crossed the finish line.

"Not only do I think you have to race in that stuff, I think as far as our sport is concerned it is imperative," Read said. "That's the only time Joe Schmoe sitting back in Providence, R.I., is going to take any interest in the sport of sailing."

Round 2 had its exciting moments, including the near-sinking of Young America's USA 53, which cracked its hull after slamming through a series of waves on the third day of racing.

On Day 4, Nippon Challenge was dismasted in its race with AmericaOne, and Stars and Stripes beat Prada Challenge, the Italians' first loss of the regatta.

Overall, the surprises of the round were the strong performances of America True (second) and Stars and Stripes (third), and the disappointing performances of Young America (sixth) and AmericaOne (fourth).

While America True and Stars and Stripes are one-boat teams, Young America and AmericaOne are top-dollar, two-boat campaigns that widely have been expected to strongly challenge Prada for the berth against Team New Zealand in the America's Cup.

After Round Robin 3, the top six boats in the field of 11 challengers will enter the semifinals, from which the top two will be selected for the LVC final.

Here's how the top six challenge teams appear to shape up after 20 races:

1. Prada Challenge, Italy -- The Italian team had lost once, when Stars and Stripes navigator Peter Isler's course through a blinding rain squall made the difference.

Abracadabra 2000 (Hawaii) gave the Italians a scare on Day 11, when skipper Chris Larson of Annapolis built a lead of 29 seconds on the first leg. But Prada proved faster downwind and wasn't challenged afterward.

Helmsman Francesco de Angelis said the team has yet to decide which boat it will enter when Round Robin 3 begins Dec. 2.

"We are happy with the races so far and especially this second round," he said. "All the teams had to sail in clean, strong winds, so I think it was a good period for the crew to learn the boat."

2. America True, San Francisco -- Dawn Riley's one-boat challenge has argued throughout the regatta that racers should get to the course ready to race, rather than wondering whether conditions are too rough or gear too weak. Following that philosophy helped the coed team win eight of 10 races this round.

With perhaps the best downwind speed among the challengers and an eagerness to race, America True probably is more than a passing fancy.

"It's always good to be in second," Riley said. "It is better to be in first. We're happy to be there, but we still have to win every single race."

3. Team Dennis Conner, San Diego -- Only America True and Abracadabra 2000 beat Stars and Stripes in this round, and Team Dennis Conner has perhaps the best brain trust in the regatta -- Read, Isler, Tom Whidden and Peter Holmberg.

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