Blocking penalty drops back AmericaOne

Cayard says ruling `wrong'

Prada overcomes big deficit to collect win, 3-1 series lead


January 30, 2000|By Bruce Stannard | Bruce Stannard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- In one of the most sensational races in America's Cup history, Italy's Prada Challenge scored a thrilling, last-minute victory today over AmericaOne to go ahead 3-1 in the best-of-nine challenger finals series.

Right on the finish line, the Italians swooped in on the Americans under spinnaker and ran with them neck-and-neck.

Under the racing rules, AmericaOne was the burdened windward boat and obliged to keep clear. It failed to do so and was penalized.

There was nothing the Americans could do but sail on, cross the line, then come back and suffer the humiliation of a 270-degree penalty turn. At one point behind 54 seconds, Prada won the race.

Skipper Paul Cayard was far from happy with the umpire's call.

"I think he got it wrong," he said tersely. "That's all I'm going to say."

Prada tactician Torben Grael said there was no doubt Cayard deserved to be penalized. "He failed to hold his proper course," Grael said. "He altered course and tried to shut us out right on the line."

The official margin of victory was 2 minutes, 32 seconds, but it conveys nothing of the drama and excitement of what must be the closest and most extraordinary race in the Cup's 150-year history.

Asked to explain how the Italians had been able to come back so dramatically, Cayard fell back on what is becoming a stock response. "Look," he said with irritation in his voice, "the Italians have been down here for two solid years, right? We've been here for 12 months. That's the difference right there."

The dramatic upset was a fitting climax to a race in which the contestants endured some brutal sailing. Cayard showed no mercy in attacking the Italians in a spectacular luffing match on the first downwind leg. Even though he had exploded yet another spinnaker -- his eighth in this regatta -- Cayard immediately turned on the Italians and went for the jugular.

The Italians, unable to pull under the Americans, had no choice but to flog their spinnaker and go up as Cayard luffed-in, dangerously close. The Italian afterguard went into a frenzy of yelling and screaming, waving their red- and yellow-striped protest flag. But all the shouting went for naught. Cayard had them by the throat and he did not seem to want to let go.

He did, eventually, and it took a long time for the Italians to regain their composure.

Grael was critical of the way in which Cayard engaged the Italians.

"Cayard had blown out his spinnaker," he said. "So he was easily able to luff us. We were still wearing our spinnaker. It was blowing 25 knots. So we could not respond so easily. What he did to us today was not at all unseamanlike."

What Cayard did on the first run today was far from pretty, but it was effective. But the Italians were going to have their revenge.

Cayard, bareheaded but with luffing rights, took the fight straight to the Italians, luffing them into the eye of the wind. In desperate trouble, Cayard became a street fighter. Prada could do nothing but respond to the luff. The Italians momentarily broke free with a crash jibe onto starboard. But their spinnaker was by now flying in a terrible mess.

Cayard again swooped in close, luffed and kept on luffing until the Italians were once more almost head-to-wind and just about out of control.

When he was sure Prada was truly thrashed, Cayard bore off and went for the mark with Luna Rossa limping in behind flying a protest flag. The margin at the leeward mark was 39 seconds in AmericaOne's favor.

It was now blowing 22 knots with rain squalls and rising seas. AmericaOne tacked and tacked again to clear a fouled jib sheet. Cayard was heard to say, "We got a boat race on our hands now."

Prada threw tack after tack at him, but at the windward mark the Americans were 54 seconds ahead and appeared to have the race sewn up.

Immediately, the Italians went on the attack and began to close. Eight boat lengths behind, Prada was running faster. Reluctantly Cayard jibed, but the Italians jibed back. The AmericaOne crew was out of synch, and the Italians were running them down.

But with less than five minutes to the finish and both boats flying at better than 14 knots, AmericaOne seemed to find new life.

Cayard jibed for the finish lay line. But Luna Rossa was coming with more pressure and on starboard. AmericaOne was overlapped and obliged to keep clear.

The Italians called on the Americans to hold their proper course. Cayard suddenly altered course. Just short of the line, up went the protest flags on Prada. The umpires signaled their agreement. AmericaOne would be obliged to complete a penalty turn. Incredibly, the Italians had snatched victory right on the line.

Challenger finals AmericaOne vs. Prada (Best of nine; Prada leads, 3-1) Results, schedule Race 1: Prada def. AmericaOne by 24 seconds. Race 2: AmericaOne def. Prada by 1: 33. Race 3: Prada def. AmericaOne, which withdrew with a broken spreader. Race 4: Prada def. AmericaOne by 2: 32. Race 5: Tuesday Race 6: Wednesday Race 7: Thursday* Race 8: Next Friday* Race 9: Feb. 5* *-If necessary Note: Winner to race Team New Zealand in America's Cup finals beginning Feb. 19.

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