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Tensions run high as halfway point nears

By ED BAIRD
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- More competitors are on the brink of elimination in the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series for the 2003 America's Cup. GBR Challenge from England and Le Defi of France have been sent packing. Two days into the repechage, or second-chance round of the quarterfinals, two more teams will be going home in less than a week.

Such is the high-pressure nature of the America's Cup game as the challengers near the halfway point. Win or go home is the phrase of the day.

The quarterfinals are raced in two parts, a winners' bracket and a losers' bracket. Winners of the top half qualify for the semifinals. Those in the lower half have to race for a semifinal berth.

Sweden's Victory Challenge faces defending Louis Vuitton champion Prada, the Italian team that is continuing to drastically modify its boats in an attempt to find more speed. Seattle's OneWorld, undefeated in Round 1 only to lose in straight matches in the opening quarterfinal contest against Oracle BMW Racing of San Francisco, is taking on storied Stars & Stripes, the New York entry that is a past winner and loser of the America's Cup. To advance, a team must win four matches.

Prada and OneWorld fell into this round after being beaten in the initial quarterfinal matchups by Switzerland's Alinghi and Oracle BMW Racing, respectively. Victory and Stars & Stripes qualified by winning their matches in the bottom half of the format.

The elimination system provides Oracle BMW and Alinghi, winners of the initial round of quarterfinal racing, time to develop equipment and practice, make modifications or rest. The break for them totals three weeks, just when teams are feeling the strain of their second month of training and racing nearly every day.

A 45-sail limit for the four-month Louis Vuitton Cup series means Oracle and Alinghi can bring fresher equipment to the later rounds than those who qualified from lower positions. Sails wear out much like tires on race cars. Teams carry as many as 15 during each race to allow optimum efficiency in all conditions.

The flip side is that the teams that race every round may be more race-ready. Auckland's Hauraki Gulf is famous for its shifting winds and tidal effects that challenge teams daily. A race-hardened qualifier from the bottom half of the ladder could have a better handle on the subtle changes in conditions that the approaching summer brings and make better tactical choices on the course.

Racing has been closer than ever, with multiple lead changes and many finish deltas of less than 10 seconds. A premium is placed on match racing (the racing is done in pairs) and short-term weather prediction skills. The umpire team has been busy calling fouls and ensuring the racing stays fair. The spectacle of these 78-foot, 53,000-pound boats being thrashed around like dinghies is fantastic to watch.

Fans from around the world are flocking to Auckland to catch a glimpse of the action, and tens of thousands are keeping track on their computers. Virtual Spectator sells a program that lets viewers follow the boats in real time and offers background on the teams and explanations of the racing. So-called armchair skippers can follow the action like never before.

In a week, there will be four teams left, and the rate of elimination will slow as the final challenger wins its way into the America's Cup in February. But for now, tensions are running high and the racing is providing terrific action.

The Louis Vuitton Cup can be viewed on the Outdoor Life Network.

-- Ed Baird is a world-class sailor from St. Petersburg and a commentator for the Louis Vuitton Cup television broadcast.

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