America3 almost gets too much of leg up


SAN DIEGO -- Jerry Kirby has raced sailboats for 22 years and has witnessed too many mishaps to mention.

But never has he been party to a situation as potentially damaging as yesterday, when America3 averted defeat in the America's Cup and one of its crew members barely escaped serious injury.

America3 pulled to within one victory of winning the America's Cup with a one-minute, four-second triumph over Il Moro di Venezia of Italy. But not without a near disaster.

"You can say we were pretty lucky," said Kirby, 35, the America bowman. "These things usually turn into a disaster. But if you can't get through the fire drills, you don't deserve to win the cup."

America3, which has led three races start to finish, can win the best-of-seven series tomorrow. Il Moro di Venezia would have to win three races in a row -- a feat it accomplished when it ousted New Zealand from the challenger finals.

"This is not the end of the world," said Paul Cayard, the Il Moro skipper. "It's not even the end of the America's Cup. We don't feel that far down. We'll be trying our best on Saturday and hope to still make it a good series."

The series would likely be tied, 2-2, if America3 hadn't wriggled out of a colossal jam while rounding the sixth mark.

The crew was taking down a spinnaker and hoisting a jib -- a small sail in front of the mast -- when grinder Peter Fennelly got a rope leading to the jib looped around one of his legs.

As teammates continued to raise the jib, the rope tightened and started to drag Fennelly over the side.

Fellow crewman Wally Henry got Fennelly in a headlock to keep him from being lost overboard, while bowman Kirby hung over the side and prepared to cut the rope if it appeared Fennelly's leg was about to snap.

Fennelly's leg was beginning to bend when sail trimmer Mike Toppa eased the line and Kirby was able to free his teammate.

"I told Peter I'd cut the line if he started to scream," Kirby said. "But the guy is as tough as nails. He was the right person to have this happen to.

"Any other guy would have started screaming, but he would rather have had his leg broken than lose the race."

Kirby has no doubt that America would have lost if he had been forced to cut the line to the jib. His boat would have had to sail without a jib and would have almost certainly been overtaken by the Italians.

"Luck has been in our corner a few times now," Henry said.

Fennelly, a former football player at the University of Rhode Island, didn't yelp despite growing pain.

"It was hurting like hell, but I was confident the guys knew what was happening and would figure out a way to get me free," said Fennelly, 28. "Jerry Kirby saved my life -- and saved the whole race."

Kirby, whose legs were held by mastman Peter Craig as he dangled over the side, would not accept the accolades alone.

"When you have been sailing for a long time, you see just about every one of these situations in one version or another," he said. "So you just do what comes naturally. That's part of the game and it is what teamwork is all about.

"A situation like this is like having a fire on board. You just get out your hose and start squirting water before the house burns down. You have to do anything possible to get it out."

The braintrust at the back of the boat was so intensely focused on the race that it didn't realize chaos had erupted up near the bow.

"I was busy at the back of the boat," America3 skipper Bill Koch said. "I was swearing to myself and wondering why they couldn't get the jib up."

The victory leaves America3, an underdog in the series, on the verge of winning.

"We are very cautiously optimistic," Koch said. "We have great boat speed and great confidence in our crew work and tactics.

"We can do it on Saturday, but we are not planning on it. We are still planning on this being a tough series."

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