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Sailing

The score doesn't reflect good America's Cup racing

By ED BAIRD

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003


AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- America's Cup history is being made.

Swiss challenger Alinghi leads Team New Zealand 3-0 in the best-of-nine series, but the racing has been closer than the score suggests.

Former Team New Zealand helmsman Russell Coutts, who leads the Alinghi challenge, moved into the record books Tuesday by winning his 12th consecutive America's Cup race, surpassing American Charlie Barr's 11-race record. Coutts is looking to replace Dennis Conner as the skipper with the most wins in Cup racing. Conner has 13.

In Race 1, Team New Zealand got off to a strong start before its boat almost broke apart. Coutts and his Alinghi team were in trouble shortly after the start in 20-25 knots of wind. New Zealand skipper Dean Barker had Alinghi pinned down, but within three minutes Barker's boat began taking on water, requiring a crew member to bail with a bucket. The distraction and extra weight slowed the home team, allowing Alinghi to gain a stronger position.

Farther along Team New Zealand had more problems, breaking its main boom and having its genoa detach from the boat. The breakdowns were too much to overcome, and New Zealand dropped out of the race. It was the first time in more than 80 years a defender failed to finish a race.

Worse, the team's alternate boat, very similar to the race boat, sustained damage that took days to repair.

Race 2 provided more drama. In what some seasoned observers called the greatest America's Cup race ever, Alinghi built a tenuous early lead in 7-10 knots of winds. Team New Zealand passed Alinghi on the second leg and stayed in front by a comfortable margin until the final run.

Heading for the finish, Alinghi got a whisper of breeze from behind and caught up to Team New Zealand. The home team blocked Alinghi's path and looked to be positioned to stay ahead for its first point. But with six minutes left in the two-hour race, Alinghi got its nose in front and held on to win by seven seconds, less than 2 boat lengths.

Team New Zealand's heart sank. For the first time it became concerned the Cup might leave New Zealand for Europe.

Race3 caused a stir when Team New Zealand controlled the starting action only to send Alinghi off to what became the favored side of the course. Skipper Dean Barker did his best to keep the pressure on Alinghi, but in the end it was the Swiss team ahead at the finish by 23 seconds.

Sports talk shows and TV commentators asked if changes were necessary for Team New Zealand. Monday morning quarterbacks seemed to pop up everywhere. Team New Zealand made a change to its afterguard by replacing young tactician Hamish Pepper with veteran Frenchman Bertrand Pace. Pace is the team's sparring helmsman and a former world match-racing champion.

Race4 was scheduled for Thursday, but light, shifty winds worried officials and the race was delayed until Saturday. Team New Zealand stayed out to practice.

The practice will have to pay quickly, as the series likely ends this week. The first to win five races takes the trophy.

-- Ed Baird is a world-class sailor from St. Petersburg.

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