AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- With the stakes rapidly narrowing down to triumph or survival, the America's Cup racing was abandoned here today for the third time for lack of stable winds on the notoriously fickle Hauraki Gulf.
The postponement of Race 4 leaves Team New Zealand, with a faster boat and more experienced crew, still poised for victory with a 3-0 lead over the Italians in the first-to-five competition.
With Kiwi skipper Russell Coutts enjoying dominance in every dimension of the races -- boat design, sailing skills and start-box tactics -- Italian skipper Francesco de Angelis is in danger of humiliation.
He is getting close to looking at the same 5-0 whitewash inflicted on veteran U.S. skipper Dennis Conner when the Kiwis won the America's Cup in San Diego in 1995. On a beautiful but breathless summer Sunday here, both teams were given a carnival send-off from their berths in the downtown dock, only to sit on a mill-pond sea until the race was called off nearly three hours after the official start time (7: 15 p.m. yesterday in Baltimore).
There was no controversy over today's postponement. When Thursday's race was called off, the Italians complained that the wind was strong enough for them to test their light-air performance against the Kiwis. There were even suspicions of home-team bias in the decision because the New Zealand boat is designed to sail best in stronger winds.
The crews will have to wait until Tuesday (tomorrow night in Baltimore) to race again. The question now is:
Can the Kiwis pull off the first successful defense of the America's Cup outside the United States to keep sailing's most prestigious trophy here?
Or can the Italians kick-start their $50 million-plus campaign to take it to Europe for the first time since Britain's original loss to the United States in 1851?
The Italians face huge odds. Team New Zealand needs only two more wins to clinch the best-of-nine competition, the Prada-sponsored Italians must win five races in a boat that has not yet proved itself competitive.
Their task will be made all the harder because Coutts does not need to take any gambles that might give the Italians an opening. He is free to concentrate on limiting the challengers' room to maneuver, covering their every move, taking their wind at every opportunity, and generally making their lives difficult.
"The Italians have to have a small victory and go on from there," said professional Annapolis sailor and race consultant John Bertrand. "A small victory could be getting an even start, could be crossing ahead for the first time, or rounding the first mark first."
Bertrand, who was consultant to the Abracadabra syndicate in the challengers' series here, added: "You have to go for that small victory. You can't panic."
To get even a whiff of victory, the Italians will need to find a turn of speed that has so far eluded them against Black Magic, which, on current form, is the world's fastest boat in its class.
It is a direct descendant of the boat that won New Zealand the 1995 America's Cup. But it has a new bow, keel bulb and rig. These have given it a clear edge over Italy's Luna Rossa in winds that have ranged from 7 knots to 17 knots on the course.
The Italian boat should be able to make more of a race of it. It was fast enough earlier in the competition to gain on New Zealand on an upwind beat in the first race and on downwind runs in the second and third outings.
"I am happy with our boat speed," said De Angelis, before adding wryly: "For sure, they are not slower than us."
The statistics show how right he is. In the first three races, Black Magic showed a significant overall speed edge over Luna Rossa: in the first, 9.67 knots against 9.55 knots; in the second, 9.90 knots against 9.67; and in the third, 10.10 knots against 9.92 knots.
This is crucial in a race where boat speed rather than sailing skill traditionally has been the most decisive factor.
And the Kiwi boat advantage is fortified by a more experienced crew that the Italians can put aboard Luna Rossa, more popularly known simply as Prada.
Fourteen of the 16 Kiwis are veterans of the 1995 Cup victory, whereas as only two of the Italians -- newcomers to the esoteric match-racing end of sailing -- have America's Cup experience.
As De Angelis observed after his third defeat yesterday: "I think they are making almost no mistakes. It is hard to pass them once they are ahead."
Team New Zealand also enjoys the defenders' advantage of sailing on home waters in the Hauraki Gulf, where the fickle conditions are a challenge to any helmsman.
While the Kiwis have refined their sailing tactics on the gulf for five years, the Italians have been here for only the four months of the challengers' series.
But Team New Zealand faced one disadvantage when the Cup started: While De Angelis was competing against many of the world's top sailors to become challenger, Coutts could sail only in in-house races against a sister boat.
But the Kiwis' lack of race exposure has had little impact on their performance, which is generally credited with being near-perfect.
In Race 3, the Italians made the mistake of choosing the left side of the course, lured there by a wind shift that turned out to be all too brief. This left the Kiwis on their favored windward right side. They were able to gain a boat-length lead, and the Italians could never get back into the race.
In Race 2, the Kiwi skipper produced a spectacular start-box maneuver, stopping Black Magic almost as though it had brakes by luffing into the wind. de Angelis, with the starboard advantage, was unable to counter the move quickly enough and had to cede the windward side to the Kiwis, who led over the line by 18 seconds.
The Italians quickly found a favorable wind shift and were catching the Kiwis when disaster struck. First, a piece of debris wrapped itself round their bow, cutting their speed by 1.5 knots. Efforts to clear it with a carbon-fiber kelp stick failed, and De Angelis had to stop the boat and put a man overboard. During the drama, the Italian bowman was struck on the head and had to be evacuated for treatment of a three-inch gash.
In the first race, Prada led over the start line, but during the first upwind tacking duel it failed to make a crucial cross in front of Black Magic, which would have given it the side of the course with the best wind. The Kiwis quickly set what has become the pattern -- they took control.
America's Cup finals
New Zealand vs. Prada (Best of nine; New Zealand leads 3-0)
Race 1 -- New Zealand won by 1 min., 17 sec.
Race 2 -- New Zealand won by 2 min., 43 sec.
Race 3 -- New Zealand won by 1 min., 39 sec.
Yesterday (today in N. Zealand) -- ppd., light wind
Tomorrow (Tuesday in New Zealand) -- Race 4
Wednesday (Thursday in New Zealand) -- Race 5
Friday (Saturday in New Zealand) -- Race 6*
Saturday (March 5 in New Zealand) -- Race 7*
March 6 (March 7 in New Zealand) -- Race 8*
March 8 (March 9 in New Zealand) -- Race 9* *-If necessary
Pub Date: 2/27/00