Cup becalmed again

Italians like forecast

Challengers hope shift in wind can shift their effort into high gear


February 29, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Weather cancellations took a 4-3 lead over race days in the America's Cup today as lack of wind forced the boats back to the dock, with Team New Zealand still sitting on a 3-0 lead in the best-of-nine competition.

With only three races started in 10 days, the two crews agreed within minutes of the fourth cancellation to race tomorrow (tonight in Baltimore), slated in the official timetable as a lay-day.

The forecast tomorrow is for a sea breeze of 12 knots to 15 knots from the north east, exactly the conditions the Italians have been hoping for to reverse their fortunes.

They believe the shift from the prevailing land to a sea breeze should make the water choppier, favoring their boat Luna Rossa's long bow overhang, which contrasts with the snubber bow of the Kiwis' Black Magic.

"We have not had that yet," said Doug Peterson, co-designer of Luna Rossa. "When you've seen the boats close together, they seem to have performed well. And we weren't exactly on the right part of the course [in the first three races].

"I would like to see the wind coming from the sea, or have us on the right side. If we were able to get the right side, it would change the picture."

But nature and the Kiwis have so far combined to prevent the picture changing. In the first three races, the wind blew from the land, and the Kiwis' skipper, Russell Coutts, kept consistent control of the windward side.

Peterson is not yet ready to accept the 3-0 evidence that the new Black Magic is a faster boat all-around than his Luna Rossa, more commonly known as Prada.

"We're capable of winning. Definitely," he said. "There's no reason why not."

In the right sea conditions and with the wind advantage, Prada would show Black Magic its wake, he said.

"They are beatable," he insisted.

The prevailing calm on Hauraki Gulf is becoming a major embarrassment for the New Zealand race organizers, threatening to test the enthusiasm of TV advertisers and the general public.

"It's boring," said Harold Bennett, chief race officer of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, which is host to the regatta. "I think it's a problem. We want to race as much as the sailors do."

Both crews "wholeheartedly agreed" to race tomorrow," added Bennett.

On another breathless summer's day, the crowds today were smaller than previously as the boats left the dock to sit for a frustrating five hours on a sloppy sea before the race was again called off.

Word was that a sea breeze of between 6 and 9 knots -- just enough for a race -- was on its way, but a high-pressure zone over New Zealand's North Island made it a no-show.

Under the original schedule, the best-of-nine competition should either have been settled by now if the Kiwis' early dominance had prevailed, or, if the Italians had found their form from the challenger series, it would have been approaching a nail-biting finale.

The stakes for the two teams tomorrow are poised between New Zealander triumph and Italian survival.

The Kiwis need only two more wins to make them the first non-Americans to successfully defend the 149-year-old America's Cup.

The Australians were the first to take the cup from the United States in 1983, only to lose it back to veteran U.S. match-racer Dennis Conner, sailing Stars and Stripes, four years later. It remained in the United States until the Kiwis' 1995 victory.

The Italians now desperately need a win if they are to have any hope of taking the Cup to Europe for the first time since the British originally lost it to the United States, in 1851.

For the first time in 149 years, no American boat is in the race for the 30th America's Cup. Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis won the challenger rights by defeating California's Paul Cayard, winner of the 1998 Whitbread Round the World race, 5-4, in the final of a four-month challengers' elimination series.

"The sailing team is fighting against a different animal now, and it takes a while to get used to it," said German Frers, head of the Italian design team, attempting to explain Prada's 3-0 predicament.

The Kiwis, who have trained nonstop since their 1995 cup victory, are widely regarded as the best match-racing team in the world.

And their boat, Black Magic, has set the standard for innovations, with a new hull shape, rig and keel bulb. It also carries slightly smaller, but much fuller sails than Prada to offset the drag of its greater wetted area.

On the race course, the Italians have yet to be first around any marker. They have managed to cut into the Kiwis' lead once or twice, mainly on downward runs, but have never found enough speed to overtake them.

De Angelis is now struggling to stave off the sort of 5-0 fate Conner suffered in 1995 in San Diego.

The Italian will have to start taking risks if he is to best Coutts, a master match-racer who has out-sailed him in both the start-box dueling and in the drag race around the 18.5-mile, round-the-buoys course.

The Italians were out on the water yesterday (Monday), trying to find ways to counter the Kiwis' start-box tactics, which have deprived them of any opportunity of getting over to the windier right-hand side of the course at the starting gun.

One idea the Italians may adopt from the Kiwis is to sail the opening upwind leg without their mast-head backstay attached.

"We're discussing it for the first leg," said Peterson. "We've been pushing other things, so we've not actually done it in a race yet."

The Italians' task is all the more daunting because Coutts, with his commanding lead, can now sail conservatively. He can avoid risks and concentrate on frustrating the challengers' efforts to make a comeback.

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