New Zealand makes it two in row over Prada; Bad luck dogs Italians in Cup defeat by 2: 43


AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Its days as a dark horse over, New Zealand won its second straight America's Cup race today by 2 minutes, 43 seconds, as double trouble struck the Italians.

First, Prada picked up a piece of trash on its bow and, in the effort to clear it, bowman Massimiliano Sirena took a serious gash to the head.

He was hit by one of the carbon-fiber poles being used in a vain effort to dislodge the trash, the exact composition of which never was determined, but which had a rope attached. Sirena could be seen leaning over the boat, holding a towel to his head, his blood splattering the hull.

He was quickly evacuated and replaced -- moves allowed under the rules. On the way back to land, Prada's doctor stitched the three-inch wound.

Throughout the drama, the trash couldn't be dislodged. Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis had to head into the wind, stop the boat and put a man overboard to dive down to clear it.

By the time Prada was shipshape and racing again, the Kiwis were 500 yards ahead, and the race was effectively over, giving New Zealand a 2-0 lead in the best-of-nine series.

"I don't think it was bad luck. It is something that can happen," said de Angelis after his nightmare race. "We took something on the nose of the bow. We tacked to see if it would come off. It didn't, so we had to stop."

The excitement in this "city of sails" -- Auckland claims to have more boats (60,000) per head of population (1 million) than any city in the world -- continued here on a day of mixed sun and cloud as the two racers were towed from their berths for the start.

The Italians left with their signature tune, "Luna Rossa," blaring out, the New Zealanders with their team restraint contrasting with the enthusiasm of thousands of their dock-side supporters.

Even with the advantage of the starboard-side start with passing priority going to Prada, de Angelis was outfoxed in the pre-race maneuvering by Kiwis skipper Russell Coutts, who crossed the start line 18 seconds ahead.

"We are going nicely," said Coutts, who had complete control of the race as the two boats fought on the first upwind leg. After their back-to-back mishaps, the Italians were 2: 19 behind at the first marker, and a poor headsail change did little to speed them on their way.

"Come on. Keep going," tactician Torben Grael said, urging the Italian crew with five legs still to sail. "We can still catch up."

One consolation for the Italians was that they appeared to be able to sail a fraction closer on the upwind leg than the Kiwis, holding out the hope of a more competitive showing in future races.

On the downwind leg, with the breeze weakening from 14 knots to 9 knots, de Angelis found enough speed to cut the New Zealanders' lead to 1: 55, still a formidable gap.

Again on the third leg, despite a 20-degree wind shift that should have favored the Kiwis, de Angelis continued to catch up, rounding the halfway mark 1: 49 behind.

For the first time in the Cup, both boats flew their spinnakers on the downwind fourth leg. New Zealand sail trimmer Simon Daubney could be heard shouting: "Blow! Blow! Blow!" The wind responded, allowing the Kiwis to regain 10 seconds of their lead.

Prada's bad luck was not over. On the fifth leg, a foresail mechanism broke, forcing the Italians to fall off the wind for repairs. From the challengers' boat: "Our luck couldn't be worse than today."

The Kiwis rounded the final buoy with a plain-sailing victory assured and the Italians trailing them by 2: 26, a wider deficit than after the disastrous first leg.

The Kiwis, with 14 veterans of their 1995 America's Cup victory aboard, gained another 17 seconds before finishing a daunting 2: 43 ahead to establish themselves as firm favorites in the best-of-nine competition.

There was no show of emotion from them, reflecting the tight control they keep on every aspect of their super-efficient campaign.

The twice-defeated Italians returned to their base to lament their misfortune and puzzle over how to get the better of the defenders' boat, whose wake they had to follow around the course. Their only consolation: When everything went right for them, their boat speed was competitive. On a better day, they might yet make a race of it.

"We realize Luna Rossa had some bad luck," said Coutts, "but it could come back strong in this series and we still have to win some more races.

"It's early days, so I think it's still very even. You have to see us in a full range of conditions to see where we are."

The third race in the nine-race regatta is set for Thursday (tomorrow in Baltimore), weather on Hauraki Gulf permitting.

America's Cup finals

New Zealand vs. Prada (Best of nine; New Zealand leads 2-0)

Race 1 -- New Zealand won by 1 min., 17 sec.

Race 2 -- New Zealand won by 2 min., 43 sec.

Tomorrow (Thursday in New Zealand) -- Race 3

Friday (Saturday in New Zealand) -- Race 4

Saturday (Sunday in New Zealand) -- Race 5

Feb. 28 (Feb. 29 in New Zealand) -- Race 6*

March 1 (March 2 in New Zealand) -- Race 7*

March 3 (March 4 in New Zealand) -- Race 8*

March 4 (March 5 in New Zealand) -- Race 9*

*-If necessary

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