Postponement ruffles sails of Italian team; Prada objects as race called for lack of wind

THE BALTIMORE SUN

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The third race for the America's Cup between Team New Zealand and the Italians was postponed today for lack of wind, provoking suspicion of home-team favoritism.

The Italians objected to the second postponement in a week, feeling it prevented them using the light air to narrow the Kiwis' 2-0 lead in the best-of-nine competition.

"We are a little unhappy we didn't start the race today. We felt that the conditions were good enough," said Matteo Plazzi, the Italian navigator. "We gave our opinion to the race committee that we could try to race."

Races in the Louis Vuitton challenger series had started in lighter conditions, said Plazzi.

Hamish Wilcox, a member of the Italian weather team, said he measured winds ranging from 5.8 knots to 9.9 knots.

"In that range, we could race," he said, warning that light airs were likely over the next four race days. "Maybe we will have to do it."

If the Italians are to get back into contention, they need to exploit whatever advantages they can find against a more experienced Kiwi crew with an innovative and extremely effective boat. The Italian boat, Luna Rossa, is narrower and carries more sail than the Kiwis' Black Magic, design features that should enhance its light-air performance.

Black Magic's greater wetted area and longer water line should give it the edge particularly in heavier weather, although it consistently outpaced the Italians in winds of around 12 knots during the first two races.

The postponement decision was taken 2 1/2 hours after the scheduled start time by Harold Bennett, chief race officer for the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, the organizer of the regatta.

The Italians could be seen trying to persuade Bennett and the race committee to get the race under way in a northerly sea breeze of 7 or 8 knots. But Bennett ruled that the wind was too unstable, shifting 40 degrees, with major differences at each end of the course.

Bennett said he talked to both crews before deciding to call off the race. The Italians wanted to race; the Kiwis "were not really that keen." In pre-race talks, both captains had agreed not the start the race in less than 7.5 knots.

"I said I would not start in light and variable condition that were unstable, and that's what we had today," he said, adding that future decisions would depend on the wind of the day. The next race is scheduled for tomorrow.

Kiwi tactician Brad Butterworth said: "We were happy we didn't race, for sure. But if it had been steady today and the same strength -- no problem for us."

Defending teams -- particularly the New York Yacht Club which held onto the America's Cup for 132 years -- have been accused frequently of "fixing" the rules and conditions of America's Cup racing to their own advantage.

Eyebrows also were raised today by the positioning of the course strikingly close to the coast of Hauraki Gulf, where the land impacts of the wind shifts.

Defenders inevitably enjoy the home-waters advantage, but this is particularly telling in Hauraki Bay, a singularly unpredictable stretch of water with rapid shifts in wind direction and speed.

While the Italians have sailed the gulf for four months to beat 10 other boats from six nations for the right to challenge New Zealand, the Kiwis have been practicing on these waters for four years.

Auckland's climate is described as "four seasons in a day," and the uncertainty regularly extends to the race course. Depending on the weather, the Kiwis can perfectly legally choose a location to best exploit their local knowledge.

When they won the cup, the Kiwis eschewed the sort of rule-fixing for which the New York Yacht Club became notorious in fighting off all challengers until the Australians, using a revolutionary winged keel, won the cup in 1983.

They promised "a level playing field." But, while the New Zealanders are generally credited with staging a fair competition, the acid-tongued Dennis Conner, who failed to make the finals of the Louis Vuitton challenger series here, wondered aloud whether they had been to the Alps and considered those to be level.

"There's just a built-in advantage to being the defenders," said John Bertrand, a professional sailor and America's Cup veteran who has been following the races from his home in Annapolis.

Yesterday, the crews woke for their third encounter to a bright sunny day with scant morning breeze.

For the Kiwis, with a 2-0 lead, the aim now is to try to make their position almost unassailable. Three straight victories would leave them two wins short of repeating the 5-0 whitewashing they administered to Conner in 1995, when they won the cup in San Diego.

Enjoying a slight but telling boat-speed advantage, upwind and downwind, in a race where sheer speed usually has counted for more than skill, the Kiwis also have made the most of having 14 America's Cup veterans aboard.

Their sailing has been almost mechanical, a reflection of the intense training program they have followed. They have displayed a calm confidence during the racing and controlled emotions after it.

The Italians, comparative newcomers to this style of match racing and with only two America's Cup veterans on board, are facing the ultimate pressure of trying to avoid humiliation.

Patrizio Bertelli, boss of Italian leather-maker Prada who has sunk more than $50 million into the campaign, has made no secret of his frustration at the boat's poor showing. His screaming has been heard through closed doors.

Since emerging victor from the 202-match challengers series, Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis has failed to find form in the first two cup races.

Out-sailed in the starting box, out-paced on the course, and struck by mishap, he has yet to prove himself an equal competitor to cucumber-cool Kiwi skipper Russell Coutts, who steered his crew to victory in 1995.

The first two races were easy victories for Black Magic by 1 minute, 17 seconds and 2 minutes, 43 seconds, respectively. Despite the margins, the Italian boat, nicknamed the "silver bullet," showed moments of competitiveness, sailing one leg in each race faster than the Kiwis. In the first race, it was an upwind beat, in the second a downwind run, suggesting that this could yet become a real race.

As Coutts said after his second victory: "It's still very early days. I think it's still very even."

Even during the cup, the Kiwis have been using non-race days to refine their tactics for the all-important five-minute duel in the starting box before the gun.

"For those of you that have been watching some of the practice sessions, you'll know that Dean Barker [tactician] has been really giving us a big push and is a big help in the pre-start maneuvers," said Coutts. "I certainly think we've become stronger because of the work that we have put in as a team."

Coutts demonstrated that strength in the second race, when he almost skidded Black Magic to a stop, luffing into the wind. Prada's de Angelis, unable to match the move, overshot the black boat, and the Kiwis went on to start with an 18-second advantage.

By the end of the race, the disaster-struck Italians -- they had to stop their boat to clear debris from the bow, and one of the crew had to be evacuated after his head was gashed -- were crushed.

Today, they resented being deprived of what they saw as their chance to make a comeback.

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.

Last night (today in New Zealand) -- ppd., light wind

Tomorrow (Saturday in New Zealand) -- Race 3

Saturday (Sunday in New Zealand) -- Race 4

Monday (Tuesday in New Zealand) -- Race 5

March 1 (March 2 in New Zealand) -- Race 6*

March 3 (March 4 in New Zealand) -- Race 7*

March 4 (March 5 in New Zealand) -- Race 8*

March 5 (March 6 in New Zealand) -- Race 9*

*-If necessary

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