AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Team New Zealand tightened its grip on the 30th America's Cup today, scoring its third straight win over the Italians in the first-to-five competition and winning a hero's welcome from its home crowd.
New Zealand is within two races of repeating the 5-0 whitewashing it administered to U.S. skipper Dennis Conner in San Diego to win the Cup five years ago and of becoming the first non-Americans in the race's 149-year history to defend the title.
"We just managed to get ahead," said Kiwi tactician Brad Butterworth, a longtime sailing partner of winning skipper Russell Coutts. "Today was a difficult day to pass. If the roles had been reversed, it would have been a different race.
"We went out looking at this race as it would be better to be 3-0 than 2-1. It could easily have happened the other way."
Enjoying a clear boat-speed advantage of an average of 10.10 knots over Prada's 9.92 knots in a race in which speed is usually more decisive than sailing skill, the Kiwis again showed the Italians their wake around the 18.5-mile course.
For Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis, the question now is: Can he avoid humiliation after Prada, Italy's high-fashion leather-maker, has poured more than $50 million into the effort to take the Cup to Italy?
"You have to think of the next day," said de Angelis, a world champion sailor who has yet to find a way to threaten the Kiwis in the esoteric sport of match racing. The fourth race in the best-of-nine series is tomorrow with similar conditions forecast.
Since winning the 202-match challengers series, de Angelis has struggled to find the form that carried him past 10 boats from six nations in the four-month challenger series.
If the pressure on de Angelis was obvious, New Zealand was also under the gun -- to make its lead almost unassailable with a third victory.
The Kiwis got off to a good start, crossing the line a whisker ahead of Prada, but, more importantly, controlling the windward side of the course, blocking all efforts by the Italians, who unwisely chose the left side of the start line, to cross them.
"We have been having problems at the start in the Cup, but that can go either way," said Italian tactician Torben Grael, who decided the let the Kiwis have the windier right side. "I think with good starts you could have a different attitude on the first leg than being in the defensive position."
Race 1 was sailed in an average blow of 9 knots, and New Zealand sailed to a 1-minute, 17-second victory. Race 2, when mishap wrecked the Italians' chances, was in 13 knots, and the Kiwis won by 2: 43.
With 13 knots registered on the right-hand edge of the course and 9 knots on the left, Italians quickly moved to correct their mistake, but New Zealand kept a vital boat-length lead.
The Kiwis rounded the first marker 19 seconds ahead of Prada. On the downwind leg, with both boats flying their gennakers and matching jibes with the precision of synchronized swimmers, Prada was unable to produce the sort of speed edge on the Kiwis that carried it past AmericaOne in the challengers' final.
New Zealand positioned itself perfectly for the run to the second mark, but Prada had cut two seconds off its lead as it rounded just 17 seconds behind. For the first time, the two America's Cup teams appeared to be engaged in sustained close combat.
But it wouldn't last. New Zealand, with its innovative bow and rig, picked up the pace on the next upwind leg, all but sealing Prada's fate.
The Kiwis not only regained the two seconds they lost but added 69 seconds more to their lead in a marine drag-race as the two boats separated, then came back together, with Prada vainly fighting for the wind advantage but Black Magic sailing smoothly.
"We need something radical here," shouted Grael, as they rounded the mark. The Italians quickly opted to peel their gennaker and replace it with the bigger spinnaker.
They pulled it off, challenging the Kiwis to do the same to protect their boat-speed advantage. The confident Kiwis simply kept on course, only to suffer a major tear in the foot of their foresail in a jibe, the remnant streaming down the side of the black boat.
With the mark approaching, Coutts and his after-guard brain trust decided to risk a final jibe with the torn sail to make the lay line around the buoy.
The Italians gained 11 seconds, and were precisely 1 minute behind Black Magic at the turn. It was brief respite. After the final upwind leg, the Kiwis were back in the lead by 1 minute, 43 seconds. Their winning margin: 1: 39.
With their third straight win, the Kiwis took another vital step toward keeping sailing's most prestigious trophy right where it is and showed why they are generally considered the world's best match-racing team.
America's Cup finals
New Zealand vs. Prada (Best of nine; New Zealand leads 3-0)
Race 1 -- New Zealand won by 1 min., 17 sec.
Race 2 -- New Zealand won by 2 min., 43 sec.
Race 3 -- New Zealand won by 1 min., 39 sec.
Today (tomorrow in New Zealand) -- Race 4
Monday (Tuesday in New Zealand) -- Race 5
Wednesday (Thursday 2 in New Zealand) -- Race 6*
March 3 (March 4 in New Zealand) -- Race 7*
March 4 (March 5 in New Zealand) -- Race 8*
March 5 (March 6 in New Zealand) -- Race 9* *-If necessary