Down Under, they're overjoyed to be host of this year's event; 2nd thought in States, race No. 1 in watermen's haven; America's Cup


AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- In a town of 1.2 million, where one in 11 residents is said to own some sort of sailing vessel, the start of the America's Cup yacht racing trials here tomorrow is more than just a darn good excuse for a party.

The Cup, sailing's most prestigious trophy, was held by the New York Yacht Club for 132 years, until Australia won it in 1983. The United States won back the Cup and kept it for two defenses, until New Zealand's Sir Peter Blake skippered Black Magic to a 5-0 victory over Dennis Conner in 1995 off Point Loma, near San Diego.

Beginning tomorrow, five American teams will take on six other syndicates of challengers from Australia, France, Japan and three other nations in a round-robin tournament for the right to race against Team New Zealand. The final races between the black-clad sailors of Team New Zealand and the winner of what's dubbed the Louis Vuitton Cup will be in February.

Keeping the America's Cup -- the longest contested trophy in sports -- in Kiwi hands has taken on nearly religious import.

"Everyone here owns a boat -- you're practically born on a boat -- and there isn't anyone who doesn't sail," said Dickie Jones, self-appointed "wharf warden" of Auckland's Viaduct Basin and a member of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, stout defender of the vaunted Cup. "There's nothing we take more seriously."

"When we held this last race in San Diego, it barely made the sports pages," said W.H. Dyer Jones, director of the America's Cup challenge association. "But here, the races headline the paper most every day. The whole city is so focused on these races, it's created a wonderful sense of excitement."

Officials predict 65,000 tourists will visit the city for the races and that construction and tourism-related investment will add $300 million to the economy.

Today, much like Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Viaduct Basin is the centerpiece of a rejuvenated, upscale Auckland.

"We needed the time to clean up this harbor," Blake said of the renovation process. "We couldn't invite the world to a race where the yacht basin was only 4.5 meters [about 14 feet] deep and was full of old tires."

Pub Date: 10/17/99

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