Cup racers test edge of wind


The America's Cup elimination trials are four months of sailing that often take sailors, designers and 75-foot yachts toward the edge of racing propriety. On Sunday, challengers and defenders went out to race in conditions that took several boats to the edge and sent oneAustralia beyond it.

Halfway through the third leg of its match with Team New Zealand, oneAustralia, having just swung its bow through the wind, folded "like a sheet of cardboard" and sank within two minutes.

Yesterday, oneAustralia skipper John Bertrand said his challenge syndicate will regroup, put a new keel on the boat that won the World Championships last fall and resume racing toward the America's Cup match in May.

"Yeah, we can do it. We've got a world-class organization here; we've got incredible energy and drive, and a passion," said Bertrand, who in 1983 became the only non-American to win the America's Cup. "Our first boat is not that far off the pace, and we look forward to getting into the competition and giving the opposition hell."

At the time of the sinking Sunday, Bertrand said, the wind was blowing between 20 and 22 knots true, the seas were 5 to 6 feet and closely spaced, and a rain squall was passing through the race course.

The 17 crew members aboard oneAustralia all jumped clear of the $3 million yacht and immediately were picked up by support boats trailing the racers.

The International America's Cup Class yachts used in the defender and challenger trials are state-of-the-art racing machines -- light, fast and terribly spirited when the wind is up and even a small sea is running.

For the sailors, the challenge is to keep the boats up and moving. For the designers, the challenge is to keep the boats as light as possible while retaining enough strength in the structure to keep it from cracking or breaking in two.

Design parameters have minimum specifications for weight and thickness of hull skin and shell, said Russell Bowler of Farr and Associates, the Annapolis firm that designed Tag Heuer's NZL 39.

"But there is no control over internal framing," Bowler said yesterday. "That is the competition, to see who can get the large forces [generated by the sails and rigs of these boats] under control with a minimum of weight. It is the law of the jungle out there."

And while several other boats were challenged severely Sunday, oneAustralia did not survive.

"OneAustralia is definitely the odd man out in this case," Bowler said. "The other problems were more typical of what you might expect when conditions get rough."

Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes and Mighty Mary, the America3 women's team's new boat, had problems with their mainsails, and both raced under forward sails only before Stars & Stripes retired.

France 3 broke its mast at the third spreader during its race with Spain and retired.

Pat Healy, race director for the challenger series, said yesterday that "we did not come close to the criteria for canceling the race."

Generally, races are not held if winds are 20 knots or more at the start. Sunday, winds were about 15 knots as racing began, and Healy said that a mile away from Team New Zealand and oneAustralia at the time of the sinking, the wind was blowing just under 16 knots.

"The boats should be designed for 20 knots, and that is the best of the breeze we have seen out there." Bowler said. "I have not seen the boat except in photographs, and I have no real idea of what went wrong.

"But it may be that the overall bending became too great."

In general terms, overall bending is the lifting of the front and rear of the boat through downward pressure on the mast and its rigging and the sails and their trim controls. As the wind gains strength, more tension is needed to trim sails and greater forces are transmitted downward along the mast. The stronger the framing within the hull, the more pressure it can withstand before breaking.

Bertrand said oneAustralia broke apart with "the sound of a cannon shot," and televised film clips of the sinking showed a large crack opening in the carbon-fiber hull five feet behind the mast. As oneAustralia sank, the bow and stern rose, while the mast, with sails still set, sank first.

Dr. Heiner Meldner, technical director for the America3 defense syndicate, said that the sinking might have been a classic case of buckling failure, due to a weak area in all the IACC boats where the hull narrows toward the stern behind the primary winches.

"These are racing vehicles, and the old thing is the ideal racing vehicle is one that falls to pieces right after it finishes," Meldner said. "Sometimes it happens before."

Yesterday, the race committee for the challenger series ruled that oneAustralia may complete this round-robin with its older boat. The boat that sank Sunday took 11 of 35 approved sails and the team's best mast with it.

"Every now and then, these things happen -- you break a mast, you break a winch, you break a sail, you break a hull," oneAustralia CEO Peter Morris said. "Ours was just a little more catastrophic."

Team New Zealand, oneAustralia and Tag Heuer have clinched berths in the semifinals. Nippon and France 3, which would have raced oneAustralia yesterday, are battling for the fourth berth.

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