Goliaths Gird for War on Water

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Last Thursday, on Waitangi day, New Zealand's national holiday, Auckland's waterways bustled with sailors and pleasure craft. In a city where there is a boat for every 11 people, motor launches churned past genteel sloops and children adeptly steered their dinghies not far from the best-paid professional sailors in the world. By early afternoon, New Zealanders Russell Coutts, Brad Butterworth and Murray Jones were engrossed in a familiar training ritual: Coutts was at the helm of a 25-tonne racing machine, Jones was up a mast several stories high, all senses seeking the secrets of the wind, and Butterworth's mental computer was sizing up a dizzying amount of tactical data. With the first race of the 31st America's Cup beginning Feb. 15, the country's elite sailors are match-racing in their sleep, hoping international sailing's most prized trophy will again be theirs - if not their country's.

For if Coutts and Co. are successful in the best-of-nine series, the trophy and the event will be shifting to Europe. The cream of New Zealand yachting now sails for Switzerland's Alinghi, the slick racing team bankrolled by biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, which last month won the Louis Vuitton challenger series. On the water, Coutts, 40, will be trying to outwit Dean Barker, 29, Team New Zealand's skipper and the man who was his understudy when the Kiwis successfully defended the Cup (which they first won in 1995) three years ago. "It's a promoter's dream,"says Tony Thomas, executive director of the event. "The teacher vs. the protégé. It's a scenario that we've often seen in sport, and in New Zealand there are very divided loyalties this time."Since last October, when racing began, Alinghi has blitzed American and European challengers alike, losing a mere two of its 25 races. New Zealand yachting fans have both dreaded and dreamed of a showdown with the formidable Swiss.

For a multinational unit like Alinghi, with members drawn from Europe, Australasia and North America, questions about nationality are treated as an irritant. The rules of the Cup require sailors and designers to reside in the syndicate's country of origin for two years. Making team members eligible, says Alinghi's executive director Michel Bonnefous, chews up a large part of the budget - and the Swiss will ease that requirement if they win. "Switzerland is a country without a lot of natural resources,"he says. "In business, we are used to looking outside for competencies. Let's take the best people, wherever they may be. That's the philosophy of Alinghi."Team New Zealand chief Tom Schnackenberg believes that nationality is a very important part of the Cup's tradition, magic and romance: "The Deed of Gift [the Cup's framework of rules] calls for ‘friendly competition between foreign countries.'"

Landlocked Switzerland, however, will not be the venue for the Cup defense if Alinghi prevails in Auckland. There is talk that European dignitaries are already on their way to see Bertarelli in the coming weeks, armed with plans and offers of cash to secure the next regatta in their city or province. "The Cup needs a shot in the arm,"says Coutts. According to Bonnefous, who wants to "leverage"the best commercial deal he can for Alinghi, "putting the Cup in Europe for the first time will bring in more sponsors and VIPs, create greater public interest and allow more syndicates to compete."Cup organizer Thomas, who also works for Team New Zealand, agrees that the event would be "enhanced"in Europe but says the move would change the nature of the Cup forever. "Like Formula One motor racing, it will become a circus, and money will rule the event,"says Thomas. "That will stop small countries like Australia and New Zealand - which revitalized the Cup - from trying to compete."

While Team New Zealand ($NZ80 million) does not have the funds of Alinghi ($NZ120 million), it does have a home advantage; perhaps not so much in the sailors' knowledge of the Hauraki Gulf, where the races will be held, but in the development of the boats and continuity of the organization. Alinghi was obliged to build its boats earlier, giving the Kiwis more time for design and testing. Schnackenberg and his design team fashioned a 6-m-long false hull appendage (or Hula, as it is now known) that fits snugly against the hull; it increases the boat's waterline length and, in the right conditions, its speed. As well, Schnackenberg and Barker have stuck to the same basic sailing and preparation model that has twice won the Cup for the Kiwis. "The program has been reinvigorated,"he says. "We did not lose all our experience. We've got a good mix of sailors and they're energized. But there's bound to be some nervousness within the crew when we approach the starting line on Saturday."

Neither side qualifies for underdog status. Both teams are claiming that team spirit will get them through. Considering the money spent and the intensity of the preparation, machines and men should be at their peak of performance. Participants expect - even yearn for - close racing. "I approach all my events with a sense of concern,"says Coutts. "What have the opposition thought of that we haven't - and how are we going to beat them?"But the Cup has not seen a close contest since Australia defeated the United States in 1983. The boats are quite different, and the wind could well push them apart. The safest bet could be to call it New Zealand's Cup: young or old, in black boats or gray, Kiwi hearts and hands are all over this Auld Mug.



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