New Zealand wins opener

Kiwis begin defense of America's Cup by defeating Italy

February 20, 2000|By Gilbert Lewthwaite | Gilbert Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Sailing faster both upwind and downwind, the New Zealand boat Black Magic won the opening race of the 30th America's Cup against Italy's Luna Rossa by a commanding 1 minute, 17 seconds.

It was an immediate boost to the Kiwis' effort to become the first non-American team to successfully defend the 149-year-old Cup, sports' oldest continuous trophy.

It was also a convincing rebuttal of skeptics who thought Black Magic's innovative design would give it the edge in heavy weather at the cost of its light wind performance.

"The Team New Zealand guys were confident when they should have been and were conservative when they should have been, so it was a perfect performance," said backup navigator Tom Dodson, who watched from a tender.

This year, for the first time in the Cup's history, no U.S. boat is in the nine-race competition after Paul Cayard, sailing AmericaOne -- which today lay idle in its berth here -- lost in the challenger series earlier this month to Italy's Luna Rossa.

The Australians, with their revolutionary winged-keel, were the first non-Americans to win the Cup in 1983, but they lost it back to Dennis Conner's Stars and Stripes four years later.

The United States then held it until the Kiwis' 5-0 whitewash of Conner in San Diego in 1995.

For the first race of their defense, which had this nation on tenterhooks, the Kiwis set sail with 14 members of their 1995 victorious America's Cup crew on board.

Conversely, only two of the 16-man Italian team are America's Cup veterans.

To reach sailing's most prestigious competition, the Italians spared no expense and went through a steep learning curve to emerge winners of the Louis Vuitton Cup.

That made the Italians the challengers, from among 11 boats from seven nations.

After four months of racing in the Hauraki Gulf, they are battle-hardened.

Team New Zealand, always innovative, started the race without a mast-top backstay to cut windage, and with the perceived advantage of the starboard tack entry, giving them priority in the first crossing.

In 12 knots of wind from the southwest, Luna Rossa crossed the line three seconds ahead of Black Magic on starboard tack for the opening upwind leg of the six-leg, 18.5 mile super round-the-buoys race.

Quickly, a shout went up from the Italy's Prada-sponsored boat: "We have more speed." It turned out to be a premature declaration of confidence.

Team New Zealand, holding the commanding windward position, matched the Italians' pace and thwarted all of Prada's tacking tactics to be 22 seconds ahead around the top mark.

On the downwind leg, with their backstay attached and the wind dropping to around 10 knots, the boats separated, each with a man up the mast looking for the breeze.

In the sort of light conditions that were supposed to favor the Italians, the Kiwis extended their lead at the buoy to 36 seconds.

The call now from the Italian boat was: "We are a lot slower than them."

At the halfway point, the Kiwis, wearing their lucky red socks and in uniforms sewn from material manufactured to lessen wind resistance, showed how accurate the Italians' second thoughts were by extending their lead to 1 minute, 3 seconds.

Black Magic's bow design, mast set-up and winged keel bulb all appeared to performing perfectly as the Kiwis continuously left the Italians in their wake, upwind, downwind, tacking and running.

One other advantage Kiwi skipper Russell Coutts enjoyed was an on-board communication system, which enabled him to communicate clearly to his crew above the scream of winches and general pandemonium of a racing boat.

But, with tactician Torben Grael reading the water patches well, Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis managed to claw his way back to a 25-second deficit at the fourth marker.

The race was still on, but only briefly because in the next tacking, duel Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis was unable to find any way to close on Black Magic, which rounded the final marker with a 1.16-second lead.

On the downwind run for the finish line, there was again little de Angelis could do but sail home behind the triumphant Kiwis, who must now win four more races to keep the America's Cup in its new home.

The word from the Italian camp after the race was that they chose a mainsail that was too heavy for the conditions, but the Kiwis have put the challengers on notice that they intend to keep the America's Cup right where it is -- in Auckland.

Cayard, defeated in the challengers' series, said after the race that Black Magic seemed to have the speed edge, but that de Angelis made a critical mistake by choosing the wrong side of the course after the first tacking cross on the opening leg.

But he quickly added: "I have been racing for five months, and it's real easy to stand here and tell everybody how it is done. If I would have done it myself, I would have been out there today."

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