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America's Cup trials begin this morning

Nine teams will be narrowed to one challenger to face defending champion Team New Zealand.

By Times wires and staff report

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2002


Nine teams will be narrowed to one challenger to face defending champion Team New Zealand.

Nine teams are scheduled to hit the waters of Hauraki Gulf in Auckland, New Zealand, this morning to begin competing for the right to challenge Team New Zealand for the America's Cup, sailing's most coveted prize.

The America's Cup, sports oldest trophy, was held by the New York Yacht Club for 132 years, until Australia won it in 1983. The Americans recaptured it and kept it for two defenses before losing it to the Kiwis' Black Magic in 1995.

St. Petersburg sailor Ed Baird helped coach the New Zealanders that year and skippered Young America in the 1999 challenge series.

"There are nine teams competing for the right to challenge Team New Zealand," said Baird, who is working as an announcer for the Outdoor Life Network during the Louis Vuitton Cup Challenger Series. "Five of those could be considered strong candidates, including three from the United States, to win the Cup when it is held early next year."

Since 1851, when a New York Yacht Club schooner surprised the world by beating all comers in a fleet of the fastest sailing vessels assembled, the race has showcased the best in design and technology.

With the Australians designing the winged keel and taking the Cup Down Under, teams have guarded their creations as if they were matters of national security.

"A new class of boats has emerged," Baird said. "They are roughly 79 feet long and weigh 25 tons, with most of that in the keel. There is some room to make the boats heavier or lighter and you have to adjust the sails accordingly."

Each venue has a boat that is optimal. The protected nature of the Haurkari Gulf makes it less vulnerable to the heavy swells of previous venues, including San Diego and Fremantle, Australia. Instead, tides and currents come into play and steep waves can build when the tide runs against the wind.

The gulf, despite its enclosed nature, is not a waterway to take lightly. Baird's Young America broke in half in steep seas during the challenger stages of the 30th Cup regatta in 1999-2000.

That is why a well-equipped team has two boats. Three years ago, Baird's syndicate operated with a $40-million budget.

"This time around, the better teams will be working with $60- to $90-million," Baird said.

Three challengers are from the United States:

-- Oracle BMW Racing of the Golden Gate Yacht Club is backed by software mogul and Oracle founder Larry Ellison. The team, which will sail USA-49 and USA 61, has trained in California and New Zealand. Team designer is Bruce Farr, who worked with Baird on the Young America campaign. Ellison said he will sail with the crew and perhaps take the helm.

-- Team Dennis Conner and Stars & Stripes will represent the New York Yacht Club. This will be Conner's first America's Cup since 1983, when his Liberty lost the Cup to the Australians. Conner's design team is led by John Reichel.

-- OneWorld Challenge of the Seattle Yacht CLub is backed by telecommunications entrepreneur Craig McCaw. Australian-born Peter Gilmour leads a team that includes former Olympians and America's Cup winners. The design team includes Laurie Davidson, Phil Kaiko and Bruce Nelson. The OneWorld Challenge will sail USA-65 and USA-67.

Baird said two European teams -- Prada from Italy and the Swiss entry -- are strong contenders.

"The Swiss team has the skipper, tactician and trimming team that sailed for Team New Zealand in the last America's Cup," Baird said. "A lot people think of the America's Cup as a real nationalistic event, but actually it never has been. Even back when the Vanderbilts were racing, they had Norwegians coming over and crewing the boats professionally."

The team is led by bio-technology businessman Ernesto Bertarelli, so it is well financed. Former America's Cup winner Russell Coutts of Team New Zealand will be at the helm for the Societe Nautique de Geneva.

Patrizio Bertelli's team defeated Paul Cayard's AmericaOne in the last Louis Vuitton Cup, then lost to the New Zealanders. The Italians have been working nonstop since, but Baird thinks that might hurt their chances.

"That is a long time and they could be burned out," he said. "Right now the word on the street is that the Swiss will be the team to beat."

-- Information from the Associated Press and official Louis Vuitton Cup Web site, www.lvcup.com, was used in this report.

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