Clear sailing to Cup glory

New skipper drives New Zealand to sweep of Italians in finals

March 02, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Team New Zealand, skippered by a 26-year-old first-timer, retained the America's Cup today with a clean, 5-0 sweep over the Italians, sending this nation of sailors into party time.

It was the first successful non-American defense in the Cup's 149-year history, with the Kiwis repeating the 5-0 whitewash they gave Cup veteran Dennis Conner in San Diego in 1995 to win sailing's most prestigious trophy.

Dean Barker replaced veteran Russell Coutts, 38, at the wheel of the Kiwis' boat, Black Magic, for its final race.

"I started to get a bit tense," said Barker, who learned the ropes of America's Cup sailing by skippering the New Zealanders' in-house practice boat against Coutts.

"But when you're surrounded by a team like you have here, you can't help but feel comfortable," added Barker. "You know things are going to happen, and they happened well today."

The New Zealanders' navigator and design coordinator, Tom Schnackenberg, said he discussed Barker taking the helm with Coutts, saying: "I must admit I was a little nervous. But he shrugged all that pressure off and just sailed like he normally does.

"He sailed a brilliant race."

After Barker steered them across the finish line, the normally cucumber-cool New Zealand crew members let their emotions rip, throwing their hands into the air in triumph, slapping each others' muscular, black-shirted backs, and spraying champagne over the innovative boat that initially invited skepticism but ended up with nothing but admiration.

Five years of preparation and two weeks of racing ended with a triumphal tour of the downtown harbor. As Black Magic circled the quays, the "Auld Mug," as it is known in sailing circles, changed hands from skipper to tactician, from grinder to bowman, but remained firmly in the Kiwis' grips.

Thousands of supporters -- in their team's lucky red socks, many sporting temporary tattoos of the national fern, and carrying posters and flags -- came close to delirium as Coutts and Barker stood together on the dockside podium to accept the America's Cup, sailing's most prestigious trophy.

Quickly changing hands from skipper to tactician, from grinder to bowman, navigator to trimmer, the Cup remained in the Kiwis' grips as ticker tape showered on victors and vanquished alike.

The parties went on late into the night at the new waterfront apartments, restaurants and bars in what was once a depressed area of docklands, a sort of New Zealand Harbor Place.

"Brilliantly done," said New Zealand governor-general Sir Michael Hardi Boys in a message to the team. "All New Zealanders will be proud of you.

For the Italians, with skipper Francesco de Angelis, 39, at the helm, the last race of the regatta was their best, but it still wasn't anywhere near good enough against a faster boat and a better crew.

Not once in their five Cup races did the Italians lead the Kiwis around a single marker on the 18.5-mile course in Hauraki Gulf.

But they still go home heroes, winners at their first attempt in the challengers' Louis Vuitton Cup against 10 boats from six other nations. And they will be back, bankrolled by the Prada leather fashion house, to try again in three or four years.

"We'll be back," said Patrizio Bertelli, head of Prada and sole sponsor of the Italian syndicate. Immediately after the race, Prada lodged the new formal Cup challenge for the New Zealand summer of 2002, running into 2003.

"The first fundamental thing I've learned is that you have to win races," Bertelli said, "and if you can't, you have to analyze why you don't."

Bertelli said he had no regrets about accusing the Prada crew of "suicidal tactics" after they lost the lead in the fourth race. "Analyzing th race from a different view to theirs is part of my role," he said.

Coutts' decision to step down to let Barker bring the boat to glory was an indicator of this country's future sailing strength.

Barker wasted no time in showing that he was ready to deliver the coup de grace of the competition, preventing the Italians from getting the favored right of the starting box and leading them across the line by 12 seconds.

Throughout the first-leg beat and tacking duel into a southeasterly blowing at up to 18 knots, Prada worked to keep close contact with the black boat.

"Just be patient here, guys. We'll attack them downwind," shouted tactician Torben Grael.

At the first mark, Black Magic was 24 seconds ahead.

Flying their spinnakers, the two boats fell into line for the run downwind, Prada positioned to cover any gybe by the Kiwis or capitalize on any mistakes they might make approaching the second marker, managing to take some of their air in the final stages.

A troubled headsail hoist by the New Zealanders was matched by a sloppy spinnaker recovery by the Italians, and the margin at the marker was 22 seconds, a two-second gain for Prada. Barker had all but repulsed the Italians' downwind attack.

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