Cup won't leave New Zealand easily

Winners' advantages pose massive challenge

Sailing

March 03, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- For all but nine years of its 149-year history, the America's Cup has been at home in the United States.

It may be a long time before it comes back.

The awesome performance of Team New Zealand in recording back-to-back, 5-0 triumphs to hold onto sailing's most prestigious trophy begins a new era. The Kiwis are in a league of their own.

With the advantage of writing the rules, scheduling the event and the time and money to continue its boat research and crew-training programs without interruption, Team New Zealand has established itself as a formidable custodian of the Cup.

Kiwis tactician Brad Butterworth suggested after the finals that the Cup may now stay in its cabinet at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron for the next 20 years, and few would argue.

The New York Yacht Club held onto "the Auld Mug" for 132 years after winning it from Britain in 1851. Then Australia arrived in 1983 with a revolutionary winged keel that blew past the other challengers and the U.S. boat Liberty.

But the Aussies could not stop the United States, in the familiar match-racing form of Dennis Conner, from gaining revenge and reclaiming it in 1987. It then stayed in the United States until the Kiwis' 1995, 5-0 whitewash of Conner off San Diego.

This week, the Kiwis pulled off the first-ever defense of the Cup outside the United States, employing a combination of technological advances and sailing skill. Their innovative boat, Black Magic, with its new bow, rig and keel bulb, has set the standard.

They also have the world's most-experienced crew. And, when they almost casually handed over the helm for the crucial fifth -- and last -- race to a 26-year-old first-timer, Dean Barker, they signaled a formidable future strength.

Their defenders' program will be based on a boat that has proved to be the fastest in the world in its class, in both heavy air and light winds.

It is the direct descendant of their 1995 boat, which was the best of its time. And it will be the progenitor of the next generation, which, even now, is being dreamed up by some of the most forward-thinking designers in yacht racing.

Behind that effort is the guaranteed funding of a number of major sponsors -- Toyota, Telecom, Line 7 sailing gear, Steinlager brewery and LOTTO.

They were the bankers of the Kiwis' campaign. This regatta cost them $20 million, a comparatively thrifty program compared with some other syndicates.

The only other syndicate with that sort of financial security is Italy's Prada team. Prada, the high-fashion leather-maker, was the sole sponsor of the $50-million-plus campaign this year.

And Prada boss Patrizio Bertelli said at a post-finals news conference yesterday: "I'll be back."

"If [the Italians] can retain their team, continue their focus, then I think they have a really good shot at it," said John Bertrand, professional Annapolis sailor and race consultant.

"What we are going to see is a concentration of really big-budget teams that are going to go for the America's Cup."

Five U.S. syndicates entered the challenger series, a number widely seen as splitting available funding and expertise. Next time, there may be fewer.

The next Cup regatta will start with the challenger series in the New Zealand summer -- winter in the Northern Hemisphere -- of 2002, with the best-of-nine America's Cup being raced early in 2003.

The New Zealanders waited five years to defend the Cup for the first time. Why the rush now?

One reason is economic. The specially built race village, which turned a depressed area of Auckland into a Southern Hemisphere Harbor Place, has all the facilities for the racing teams, the necessary berths for the super yachts that follow the event, and a string of shops, restaurants and bars.

It has become the hub of urban activity and an investment for the future of this so-called "city of sails."

But there is another reason for the timetable. The uninterrupted programs of the defenders and the Italians, who are now formally the challengers of record, get them off the starting blocks for 2002 faster than any other syndicate.

"The other challengers are looking at playing catch-up," said Bertrand. He was consultant to the Abracadabra syndicate here before its elimination in the challenger series, which involved 202 races among 11 boats from seven nations over four months.

Conner, "Mr. America's Cup," who was also defeated during the challenger series, will be back in 2002. He has already established residency in New Zealand.

But perhaps the American with the best chance is Paul Cayard, winner of the 1998 Whitbread Round the World race and head of the AmericaOne syndicate.

Cayard sailed his way into the challengers' finals this year, only to be beaten, 5-4, by the Italians.

Cayard's plan is to secure permanent sponsors so AmericaOne can enter a boat in a major event every 18 months. He will try to hold together the backers of his $30 million campaign here -- Ford, Visteon, Hewlett-Packard, TelecordiaSAIC and United Technologies.

The question: Will they stay aboard despite his loss?

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