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New Zealand despairs over home team's form

Even the wind has been working in favor of Swiss boat Alinghi.

©Associated Press

February 19, 2003

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Even the wind is going against the home team in the America's Cup, threatening to blow the oldest trophy in international sports to Europe for the first time in its 152 years.

Two-time defending champion Team New Zealand made the wrong decision at the start of Tuesday's race and watched Alinghi of Switzerland immediately gain from a wind shift and sail off to a 3-0 lead in the best-of-nine series.

With every race, New Zealand-born skipper Russell Coutts and his Kiwi-dominated crew aboard the 80-foot Alinghi prove they're among the best in America's Cup history.

And with every defeat, this country of 3.8-million slips deeper into shock.

New Zealanders watched their black boat practically fall apart in the opener, then drop out. In Race2 skipper Dean Barker lost the lead to Coutts, his former mentor, in the final several hundred yards.

Then came the Race 3 mistake, and the headline in the New Zealand Herald blared: "Three-nil -- what can we do?"

Race 4 is scheduled for Thursday (tonight EST), but predicted strong winds could blow it out.

In the two races they've finished, the Kiwis have lost by seven and 23 seconds, close margins after 18.5 nautical miles. But they need more against Coutts and his all-star crew.

Coutts, 40, is undefeated in America's Cup finals, winning 12 straight over three regattas and for two countries. Now the Kiwis have to beat their former skipper five times in six races.

"I don't think it's as bad as what people think," said Barker, 29. "Sure we're in a very, very tough position now; 3-0 down is not a nice place to be. But we certainly haven't given up. We don't feel like we're sailing that badly. We've made two mistakes and it's two mistakes too many that's cost us."

Alinghi has gotten everything right. Its weather team -- led by a Kiwi -- radioed the crew seven minutes before Tuesday's start and said the wind would shift to the right side of the course. One minute later, the crew tossed the radios overboard in a watertight container, to be fetched by a chase boat, because communication with outside sources is prohibited inside of five minutes to go.

Alinghi's brain trust heeded the call. Barker, meanwhile, said there was "confusion" aboard NZL-82 and the Kiwis picked the left side.

The two boats appear to be evenly matched, despite all the hype about Team New Zealand's radical hull appendage, or "hula." The Kiwis are simply being outsmarted by Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth.

"I think Russell's dominance of the sport is becoming more and more clear every day," said Josh Belsky of Hood River, Ore., one of two Americans on Alinghi's crew.

Coutts and Butterworth left Team New Zealand in a dispute over how the syndicate would be run after it kept the America's Cup in 2000. They took with them top sail trimmers Simon Daubney and Warwick Fleury, bowman Dean Phipps and Murray Jones, an expert at picking wind shifts.

"I think they're the best sailors in the world," said 37-year-old Ernesto Bertarelli, the Swiss biotech billionaire who spent millions in his attempt to bring the America's Cup to his landlocked country.

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