SAN DIEGO -- Like any good secret, the most tantalizing part is in finding out. Such was the case yesterday, when the five finalists for the America's Cup lifted the skirts on their multimillion-dollar yachts.
Underneath were appendages that looked more like cartoon characters than showpieces of technology. Although the struts were similar -- 13-foot fins with giant lead ballast bulbs at the bottom -- winglike attachments added a Disney dimension to their costly purpose.
The keel and its bulb keep the boat upright and prevent it from being blown sideways.
Words such as flippers, beaver tails and squash bulbs were used to describe shapes that took engineers and scientists from groups as diverse as Boeing Aircraft, General Motors, Lockheed Space Systems, Microsoft and Cray Research a year or more to develop.
"When I first started with the America's Cup, this wasn't any big deal," Dennis Conner, a 21-year veteran of cup racing, said. "The boats used to just hang in their slings. No one cared what the rudders and keels looked like then."
All that changed in 1983, said Conner, referring to when the Australian challenger raced with a keel that sprouted the first wings seen in 132 years of Cup competition.
So innovative was the concept that the Australians blanketed their new idea in a blue polyurethane shroud. Having won the America's Cup that year from Conner, Australia began a secrecy trend. Yesterday was the first time that keels had been shown to the public since then.
The unveiling was designed to take the edge off hiding technology at a time when revelations were expected to do the least harm. Rival teams sent their best technicians from camp to camp, but most agreed there wasn't enough time for any one syndicate to duplicate what it saw.
As many as 200 people gathered dockside at each syndicate compound. Each had a crane that lifted its 30-ton yacht out of the water, suspending it in midair.
David Pedrick, chief designer for Conner's boat, Stars & Stripes, said: "There are only two teams that will have a chance to copy one another -- the challenger and the defender. But if they are smart enough to get that far, it won't be because they needed to steal someone else's idea."
Still, there were tantalizing innovations. The rudder on Bill Koch's boat, Mighty Mary, looked like a dagger, long and thin, and dipping as far below the boat as the keel itself.
Normally used as a yacht's steering mechanism, the rudder is usually shorter than the keel. John Marshall, PACT 95 president, said his syndicate had thought about the same idea for its boat, Young America, but decided against it.
The defenders' finals begin here today with a match between Mighty Mary and Young America. It is a three-boat round-robin series that includes Stars & Stripes.
One Australia and Black Magic begin the challengers finals tomorrow.