Cup finals: Speed put to the test

N. Zealand innovations on display against Italy

February 18, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN STAFF

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- With millions of dollars invested and national pride at stake, the race for yachting's most prestigious trophy, the America's Cup, starts today in a gulf where the waters are unpredictable and the winds fickle.

The best-of-nine-race contest is between the well-tried Italians from Prada Challenge, victors in a marathon elimination series here, and the untested New Zealanders, who must now defend the trophy they won five years ago.

For the first time in the race's 149-year history, the United States has to sit out a contest that American boats have traditionally dominated.

Five American syndicates vied with crews from six other nations for the right to challenge the Kiwis, who wrested the Cup from U.S. racer Dennis Conner in 1995.

But the Italians, sailing under the multimillion dollar sponsorship of luxury leather-goods maker Prada, emerged from the pack to be challengers. They scored a 5-4 victory over Paul Cayard's AmericaOne, entered by California's St. Francis Yacht Club, in the challenger finals.

As the 11 challengers honed their racing skills and fine-tuned their boats in more than 200 races during the past four months, all Team New Zealand could do, essentially, was compete against itself while waiting for the elimination process to take its toll.

When the starting gun is fired across the Hauraki Gulf in winds expected to be 10 knots from the south, the Italian and New Zealand boats, 75-foot speed-machines, will be pushed to the extreme.

It is a race in which boat design is widely viewed as perhaps more decisive than sailing skill. Put simply, the faster boat should win.

"It's going to be a boat-speed test," said John Bertrand, Annapolis sailor and veteran of four America's Cups. He was consultant here this year to Abracadabra, entered by the Waikiki Yacht Club.

Prada's turn of speed has been there for all to see as it left the other challengers in its wake.

But as skipper Francesco de Angelis said yesterday: "Now the game has changed, because we have to race a team which we respect, but we don't know much about because we have not raced them before. And we don't know much about the boat."

New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts said: "In many ways, it's unique for both teams. On the one hand, we probably know very little about Prada, and they probably know very little about us. But it adds to the intrigue, and we will all know in a few days how it's shaping up."

In 1995, the Kiwis were fast enough to beat Conner's Young America, 5-0. In their efforts to rule the waves so convincingly again, they have introduced a new boat with four striking innovations.

Their black-hulled boat is beamier, or wider, than Prada, which suggests it is designed for stability in stronger winds.

They have flattened the keel bulb, lessening its resistance but increasing its wetted area. Again, this will improve the boat's stability in strong winds but at the cost of increasing its drag in light air.

In another gamble, they have adopted what is called a "knuckle bow." This has involved shortening the boat to increase its waterline length. It is a piece of juggling within a complex design format meant to take advantage of a basic sailing rule: the longer the boat in the water, the faster its hull speed.

But the bow is more blunt, with a larger wetted area, than Prada's classic lines. This suggests that what the New Zealand boat might gain in straight-line speed it could lose in maneuverability -- an important factor in the pre-race, start-box jockeying.

In their fourth novelty, the Kiwis have introduced "the millennium mast" -- with three spreaders instead of four. The horizontal spreaders give the mast its lateral support through diagonal wires. The diagonals on New Zealand's boat run through the mast instead of being attached to it, a set-up meant to increase lateral support and save the fourth spreader's weight in a race where every ounce counts.

The Kiwis' boat created a stir at its unveiling earlier this week. Said skipper Coutts: "From our point of view, it was disconcerting. Everyone says that what we were showing was so wrong, so I guess we will just have to wait and see whether it is or not."

German Frers Jr., a member of the Prada design team who has studied the innovations, said: "None [is] very interesting. We don't see them as big-step improvements."

So confident are the Italians that they believe the challenger finals should not have gone nine races against AmericaOne.

"We threw away races in the finals," Frers said. "The boats have a lot of power, but not much crew. If the racing is very close, you push your maneuvers to the edge.

"You have to be very precise, but very aggressive. Also, these boats are very hard to keep in the groove. To sail them at the maximum potential requires a lot of skill. You lose concentration for a minute, and it could decide the race. It depends on how many mistakes the crew makes."

`Play it to the edge'

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