At crack of mast, Bertelli boils

Syndicate boss loses cool

mishap on finely tuned boat no surprise to many

Sailing

January 06, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Anyone who bets up to $80 million on a boat race is bound to be a sore loser.

Patrizio Bertelli, the syndicate boss of Italian entry Prada, has not lost. Not yet. But he's getting closer to the point of no return.

Which is why he apparently allowed his Tuscan temper to get the better of him yesterday after his America's Cup challenger contender, Luna Rossa, broke its "lucky" mast and allowed rival AmericaOne to cruise round the course for an easy win.

The extraordinary bawling out he gave his mild-mannered Neapolitan skipper, Francesco de Angelis, and other crew in a not-so-private anteroom at the media center is seen as further evidence that his hitherto super-cool Italian campaign is at last coming off the rails.

After three races in the semifinal series, the Italians, who were expected to be way out front, find themselves struggling in fourth place in the standing of six challenger boats.

To keep their challenger finals hopes alive, they face the Herculean task of likely having to win seven straight races. It's either that, or Bertelli loses all his money.

The Italians have only themselves to blame, other skippers say. Prada has not been outclassed on the water. Its failures have been mechanical. The Italians have pushed the design parameters of their boats to the absolute limits, so that no one should be surprised if they go bust.

In 12 knots of breeze yesterday, the topmost third of the mast collapsed cleanly at the third spreader when a fitting broke and the cap shroud became disconnected. It was hardly surprising considering the tremendous loads to which these rigs are subjected. There is upward of 30,000 pounds of pressure in the backstays.

Peter Gilmour, reigning world match-racing champion and skipper of the Japanese challenger Nippon, has been waiting for it to happen all summer.

"The Italians have by far the lightest rig of all of us in Auckland," Gilmour said. "For example, the fittings where the diagonals join the spreader-tips are very small and fine and lightweight. They've gone for absolute minimum taper on their masts. It's all about getting the center of gravity as low as possible within the minimum allowed for the mast.

"They have enjoyed the benefit of that in winning race after race in the early series," he said. "But it's also a huge risk they've taken. They have engineered things down to such an extent that they have made themselves vulnerable. "It was interesting tonight," Gilmour said. "I walked into the anteroom at the media center and there was Patrizio Bertelli going hell-for-leather with his team. It was not a pleasant scene at all. He was obviously quite frustrated, and I thought now the cracks are starting to show.

" `Wow,' I thought. `I'm glad that's not my campaign,' " Gilmour said.

The Italian sailors, meanwhile, have behaved with impeccable professionalism throughout this crisis. Within just three hours of the dismasting, they had a new mast on the boat and were back on the water testing and tuning it.

Prada then appeared to get a big break today when its race against the French entry Le Defi BTT was postponed because of lack of wind.

Though no one takes the 0-3 French seriously, they do show real speed in very light air, and today's very light conditions could have given them a chance against the Italians.

So far, no one other than Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes has been able to sail flawlessly in this series. At the start of this Cup campaign, the conventional wisdom was that a low-budget, one-boat campaign like Conner's had no chance against the megabucks, multiboat campaigns.

But Conner has shrewdly stacked his crew with some of America's most experienced sailors. The steely nerve they've shown under pressure has been impressive.

Conner, the veteran Cup campaigner, summoned all his experience for a stirring speech to rally his troops on the eve of this series.

No one can deny its effect. Conner's crew sits atop the semifinal standings with a 3-0 record.

The same cannot be said for any of the other challengers. Though there is still a lot of racing left in this 10-day series, today's scheduled match between AmericaOne and Nippon, which was postponed, was expected to help shape the challenge to Conner. Both AmericaOne and Nippon are big-budget, multiboat programs.

Paul Cayard's AmericaOne is expected to end up in what looks increasingly like an all-American challenger final, but the Japanese under Gilmour have shown themselves to be capable and consistent.

If Gilmour can seize the initiative as his race starts, as he so often does, he may yet have a chance to advance to the challenger finals.

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