National fervor at high tide for Cup

Contrasting skippers earn same hero status

February 28, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Russell Coutts and Francesco de Angelis, New Zealand and Italian skippers in the America's Cup sailing competition, have the pride of their nations in their hands these days.

But, with a 3-0 lead going into tomorrow's fourth race (tonight in Baltimore), Coutts clearly has the more secure grip. And, as each stands behind the wheel of a 75-foot racer here, he is backed by the support of millions of his countrymen and women.

Already, both are national heroes:

Coutts for outsailing veteran U.S. skipper Dennis Conner to win the Cup, 5-0, in San Diego in 1995, and giving Team New Zealand its commanding lead in the current Cup;

De Angelis for getting the Italians, relative newcomers to sail match-racing, into the challenger's slot this year after winning his way past 10 crews -- five from the U.S. -- from six nations in a marathon, 202-match challengers series.

Each is now after greater glory: Coutts to make New Zealand the new, permanent home of the America's Cup after the U.S. has kept it for most of the past 149 years; de Angelis to take the Cup back to Italy, returning it to Europe for the first time since the British lost it to the Americans in 1851.

There are some handy pointers to the obsession that has gripped both nations and surrounded each man and his crew during the America's Cup.

Every racing day, the Kiwis turn out in the thousands to give Coutts and his crew a carnival send-off. And they have spent enough on the team's lucky red socks to enable Team New Zealand to buy an unbudgeted mast and several sails.

But if the Kiwis wear their hopes on their feet, the Italians carry their hearts on their pajama sleeves. They have become a nation of insomniacs.

They have literally turned their nights into days so that in the early hours they can cheer on de Angelis and the men of Prada half a world and half a day away.

For the two outstanding skippers, the day of judgment is now near. Coutts needs only two more wins to prove he is the world's best match-racer.

De Angelis, a world sailing champion who started match-racing only five years ago, must win one or two races to avoid humiliation, and a daunting five to taste triumph.

But by merely getting into the finals, he has put himself alongside the likes of Dennis Conner, known as "Mr. America's Cup," and Paul Cayard, the super sailor who won the 1998 Whitbread Round the World race and was expected to bring the America's Cup back to the United States this year.

De Angelis beat Cayard, 5-4, in the finals of the Louis Vuitton challengers series, depriving the U.S. for the first time of representation in the Cup finals.

Coutts, 37, has been in total charge of the Kiwis' program since he steered the original Black Magic to Cup victory in San Diego five years ago.

For the past four years, he has worked with the crew on sailing techniques and with the designers on innovations to the boat.

He is widely credited with setting a new benchmark for crew involvement in the design of the boat.

It was the crew's sense of boat-handling that led the designers to put fins in the center of the bulb keel rather than attach them to its rear end, although there was no scientific justification for the modification -- just one of many innovations on Black Magic.

"You can't just take someone and say you're a skipper," said Sir Peter Blake, head of the Team New Zealand syndicate, of Coutts. "It just doesn't work. You have to be a person with natural leadership. He is a natural leader."

As proof of the crew's loyalty, no fewer than 14 of the original 1995 crew members are still sailing with Coutts on Hauraki Bay in the 30th America's Cup. That group is widely regarded as the best match-racing crew in the world.

It is a sign of the level at which the team operates that it chooses to sail the upwind legs of each race without its mast-head backstay attached, smoothly clipping it on moments before the downwind legs. It is a technique to reduce windage never seen before in the America's Cup, and one that Coutts and his men have refined in their training program.

Coutts is a perfectionist, and even in victory does not hesitate to find fault with his crew's performance.

After recording a 2-minute, 43-second win over de Angelis in the second, mishap-plagued race last week, he told reporters: "It wasn't a great day."

What bothered him was a poor foresail drop and problems with the spinnaker pole, which almost broke on one leg and nearly dropped overboard on another.

"There were a couple of other mistakes," he said. "These are big boats we are sailing around and if you make a mistake they're usually big mistakes."

If de Angelis, 39, is a comparative match-racing novice against Coutts, he is no slouch as a sailor. He has won five world championships, and in 1995 was first across the line in the Admiral's Cup.

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