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AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The final of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series started today with a chance to race in the America's Cup at stake.
Switzerland's Alinghi and USA's Oracle BMW Racing have survived three months of qualifying. The winner meets Team New Zealand in the best-of-nine America's Cup beginning Feb. 15.
After the first race of the best-of-nine series was delayed Saturday by high winds, Alinghi had a poor start today but easily caught and passed Oracle to win by 1 minute, 24 seconds and jump ahead to a 1-0 lead.
The media are hyping the final as a clash between longtime New Zealand rivals Russell Coutts of Alinghi and Chris Dickson of Oracle.
The Oracle syndicate out of San Francisco, however, relies on Peter Holmberg of the Virgin Islands to do most of the driving, including the critical five-minute prestart in which teams gain advantage with aggressive maneuvering in 78-foot yachts.
All three sailors have held the world No. 1 ranking in match racing, with Holmberg in that position most recently. Coutts won the past two America's Cups with Team New Zealand before joining Alinghi.
The weather has changed since the year started. Gone are the cold, smooth-water conditions. Warm breezes and rough water have the teams looking for speed in new areas.
The new year also brought subtle racing changes. Onboard umpires are being used for the first time, relaying close overlap calls and other information to match umpires who follow in powerboats. The competitors welcome this change and are familiar with it from the Swedish Match Tour.
The size and shape of the Cup boats make it difficult to carry umpires. They are working well aft, in the "scoop" of the transom. When the boats are close or turn quickly, safety can be compromised and umpires could find themselves in the drink, or worse. Grab bars have been installed to help them hold on, but they may have to scramble forward to avoid danger if the boats collide.
The information umpires provide gives the sailors more confidence regarding their rights and restrictions in close situations, as they'll know what umpires see. It's similar to a baseball player knowing the next pitch will be a fastball.
A sour note was the recent announcement by Alinghi that some of its team members who defected from New Zealand's winning team in the last America's Cup have received threatening letters. Police are investigating, but it's a reminder of the serious nature sports can take and what the Cup means to the local economy and culture.
Matches are broadcast on Outdoor Life Network.
-- Ed Baird is a world-class yachtsman from St. Petersburg and is a commentator for the Vuitton Cup television broadcasts.