Hands off tiller, he's still skipper

Sailing: Though keeping his America's Cup watch on shore, sailor extraordinaire Sir Peter Blake is clearly the captain of New Zealand's effort.

February 23, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The man behind Team New Zealand's early success in defending the America's Cup here is Sir Peter Blake, who brought yachting's oldest and most prestigious trophy to this island nation in the first place.

As syndicate head in San Diego in 1995, Blake put together such a powerful campaign that he gave veteran U.S. skipper Dennis Conner, sailing Young America, a 5-0 beating.

It was only the second time in its 144-year history that the Cup had left the United States.

First to pry it out of Conner's grasp were the Australians, with their revolutionary winged keel in 1983. Conner won it back in 1987, only to lose it to the Kiwis five years later. This year, he did not even make the finals of the Louis Vuitton challenger series here.

Now, Blake has watched his team establish a 2-0 lead over the Italians in its effort to mount the first successful America's Cup defense outside the United States.

The first-to-five series is far from over, but the Kiwis have quickly shown that the five years they have spent preparing for this campaign have not been wasted.

Blake, a tall, gangling man with a shock of fair hair, a droopy mustache and laughing eyes, seems an unlikely, easygoing figure to run such a high-powered, competitive effort.

But his resume quickly dispels first impressions: three America's Cup competitions, winning in 1995; five Whitbread round-the-world races, winning on board Steinlager II in 1990; holder of the Jules Verne round-the-world record, set in 1994, when he was named World Sailor of the Year.

This time around, Blake, 51, is not on the black-hulled Kiwi boat, but 14 of his original crew are, while the Italians have only two America's Cup veterans on their 16-man team.

"It is a hugely, hugely experienced crew, not just with the America's Cup, but match racing, the Admiral's Cup -- you name it," said Blake during an interview at the team's headquarters here.

But perhaps even more impressive than the crew is the Kiwis' boat, Black Magic.

When it was unveiled last week, the experts assessed it as having more wetted surface and less sail area than Prada, and assumed this would reduce its light-air speed while improving its stability in heavier winds and seas.

They pointed to its wider hull, its flatter keel bulb with central fins, its longer waterline, its new mast setup, and predicted that the Prada syndicate's Luna Rossa would have the advantage in winds below 12 knots.

But in its first outing, the New Zealanders proved them wrong, leading most of the way round the 18.5-mile course to beat the Italian boat by 1 minute, 17 seconds in moderate winds of 10 to 12 knots.

In the second race Tuesday, with winds up to 17 knots, the Kiwis pulled off a brilliant start, but the race all but ended after the Italians caught debris on their bow and had to stop to clear it, and then had to evacuate a crew member with a gashed head. The Kiwis immediately took a lead of 2 minutes, 19 seconds and finished the race 2 minutes, 43 seconds ahead.

Blake is not surprised at Black Magic's performance. The Kiwis, he said, had been training in Hauraki Gulf for four years. They were well aware that February is usually a month of light winds, although last year the winds were brisker.

"We had to have a boat that would be just as solid in 5 knots as 25 knots," said Blake. "You need a boat that can do anything, really. We think we have that boat.

Blake heads an 86-strong team focused on making sure that Black Magic keeps showing her wake to the Italians. Controlling the boat is skipper Russell Coutts, 37, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist and three-time world match-racing champion.

Coutts offended the local media after his first victory here Sunday by failing to turn up for the traditional post-race news conference alongside the affable and popular Italian skipper, Francesco de Angelis. Coutts was there after Tuesday's race.

"He has totally got the blinkers on," said Blake.

Focused as Coutts may be, he never races without a bit of Blake magic -- lucky red socks.

When Blake was sailing to victory in the 1990 Whitbread Round the World Race, his wife, Pippa, gave him a pair of blue and fluorescent-pink socks. The crew members noticed that whenever they fell behind the pace, they would catch up if Blake wore his socks.

"I would put them on and next day we would be back in the lead again; quite extraordinary -- meaning nothing -- but it worked," said Blake.

For his successful America's Cup campaign in 1995, his wife gave him red socks, which he always wore aboard without anyone noticing -- until the Kiwis lost their only race. It was the only race that Blake, and his red socks, did not sail. As soon as he stepped aboard, the Kiwis started winning again, and the myth was born.

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