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Cup left at starting line by lack of a sea breeze; It's first time in 20 years finals opener postponed


AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The opening showdown between defender Team New Zealand and Italy's Prada Challenge for yachting's oldest and greatest trophy, the America's Cup, was postponed today for lack of wind.

With only two knots of sea breeze on Hauraki Gulf at the start time, the race committee had no option but to fly the red-and-white postponement flag, which signaled a start delay, and two hours later the blue-and-white asymmetrical cancellation pennant.

The forecast was for 10 knots at race time, and its failure to appear underlined the fickle weather on the gulf, where the wind is so untrustworthy it is described locally as "promiscuous."

The start of Race 1 tomorrow (7: 15 tonight EST) also appeared in doubt, as light-air conditions of 4 to 5 knots out of the southwest or south are forecast. Racing is unlikely to start at less than 7 or 8 knots, according to Harold Bennett, race committee chairman.

Monday is a scheduled day off, unless both teams and the race organizers agree to sail. This means racing may not begin until Tuesday, when northeasterly winds of 12 to 15 knots -- perfect conditions -- are forecast.

"I think both [teams] are itching to get out there and do the job," Bennett said.

He gave both teams the option today of waiting to see if the wind would fill after the 3 p.m. race start cutoff time. Both declined.

"It didn't seem like it was going to improve at all out there," Bennett said.

Rough conditions forced postponement of the first race of the Challenger finals to choose the opponent for Cup holders New Zealand last month. But it is the first time in 20 years that an America's Cup Race 1 has been postponed.

"It just continues the agony for both sides," said American Cup veteran Paul Cayard, skipper of AmericaOne, defeated 5-4 by the Italians in the challenger finals.

For the crews, the three hours' nervous wait on their wallowing, sail-packed boats for today's non-start came at the end of five-year campaigns of preparation.

For the New Zealanders, this involved building on the success of their 1995 5-0 whitewash of veteran U.S. sailor Dennis Conner in San Diego. No fewer than 14 of the crew that left Conner in their wake were on board today to try to do the same to the Italians in this best-of-nine-race series.

It also involved refining their black-hulled boat, named Black Magic, introducing a new bow, mast setup and keel bulb for what promises to be a sailing epic.

Wearing their lucky red socks and high-tech shirts to cut wind resistance, the Kiwi crew set out for Hauraki Gulf -- and frustration -- behind a Mauri war canoe with warriors of the Ngati Whatua tribe giving them a ferocious send-off, dancing a haka on the wharf.

For the Italians, the disappointing delay came after a no-expense-spared campaign, financed by luxury leather goods manufacturer Prada, brought them to the start line. By defeating Cayard's AmericaOne at the end of a four-month elimination challenger series involving 11 boats from seven nations, they won the right to challenge the Kiwis.

With only two America's Cup veterans in their 16-man crew, the Italians must rely on boat speed rather than experience. Their performance in the qualifying rounds, which started last October, proved they have a fast boat.

The key question is whether the innovations to Black Magic will give the Kiwis the edge in the 30th America's Cup they had over Conner's Young America in 1995.

The conventional wisdom is that Prada's boat, Luna Rossa (Red Moon), will be faster in light air, with Black Magic performing better in heavy winds. But as Cayard, who described himself as "pretty well in the know," admitted to a local TV audience today: "I have no idea."

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