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Sailing

Rivalry spices up Cup final

It will be Kiwis vs. Kiwi Swiss, and that has sparked quite a controversy.

©Associated Press

February 14, 2003


AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- A sport that sometimes serves up snoozers is about to launch one of its top grudge matches ever.

The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, represented by Team New Zealand, owns the America's Cup. Alinghi of Switzerland, which is crewed by far more Kiwis than Swiss, wants it.

They'll fight it out starting Saturday (tonight EST) on the fluky Hauraki Gulf, where most of both crews learned to sail.

On the Swiss boat are skipper Russell Coutts, tactician Brad Butterworth and four other key Kiwis who helped Team New Zealand win the America's Cup in 1995 and 2000. Their defections angered many in this remote country of 3.8-million.

Backed by 37-year-old biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, Alinghi is trying to take the silver trophy back to Europe for the first time in 152 years. Bertarelli also is the navigator, and during most races in the challenger series he was the only Swiss in the 16-man crew on SUI-64.

And, of course, Switzerland is the first landlocked country to reach the America's Cup match.

Sailing the Kiwis' black boat, NZL-82, are 29-year-old skipper Dean Barker and a relatively inexperienced crew that had to be almost totally rebuilt after 12 of 16 frontline sailors jumped to foreign crews after 2000.

And quite simply, New Zealanders would love nothing more than to have Barker kick Coutts, his former mentor, right in the stern.

New Zealanders have branded Coutts, Butterworth and the other "Kiwi Swiss" as traitors.

Team New Zealand sanctioned a campaign with a logo featuring the word "Loyal" and a fern, the national symbol, in white on a background of black, the national sporting color. "Loyal" flags fly everywhere, including at City Hall. Waiters in some restaurants wear "Loyal" T-shirts. As Alinghi is towed out to the course during the best-of-nine series, the high-tech sloop, painted black with funky red swirls, will pass a giant "Loyal" banner on the side of Princes Wharf. Twin "Loyal" logos on the side of a downtown high-rise are visible from the Swiss compound.

The futuristic Sky Tower, which pokes some 1,100 feet above Auckland, will be blacked out the night before each race in a hometown show of support.

A group called Blackheart, which said it exists to stir up home-country support for Team New Zealand, bills the showdown as "Russ vs. us."

Sitting next to the America's Cup at a news conference, a poker-faced Coutts said he has no regrets.

"I'm very, very happy with where I am," he said.

Alinghi's two U.S. crewmen think things could have been handled much differently.

"These guys are Kiwis through and through," pitman Josh Belsky said, referring to his New Zealand crewmates. "This whole bashing of them has been difficult. The professionals in this sport realize it's not a bad thing.

"I'm neither Kiwi nor Swiss, so I've got an objective view, and it's not been sportsmanlike. If anything, it will muster up their resolve. They can win the regatta and not feel guilty."

Coutts and Butterworth recently said they left Team New Zealand because the transition from the old leadership group to the group they would help lead didn't go well. Coutts denied he jumped ship for money, though he reportedly is making $5-million.

"From a New Zealand standpoint, this could be the best event ever," said grinder John Barnitt, the other American on Alinghi. "I mean, imagine if Don King were managing this thing. You have Dean Barker, who's the up-and-coming apprentice and hugely talented young man who's been given a tremendous opportunity, to race against the current standard.

"If you took all that, you could really make this an incredible, incredible event. Unfortunately, it's been more of a negative campaign."

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