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Auckland Race Off at a Crawl

Louis Vuitton Cup resumes with nine America's Cup challengers, but wind-limit delays testing sailors' patience.

October 29, 2002|Rich Roberts | Special to The Times

After taking four days off to avoid stealing any of the Angels' thunder, the nine America's Cup challengers resumed racing at Auckland on Monday -- Tuesday in New Zealand.

OK, what really happened was that the Kiwi weather god, K-Rod, pitched a series of sliders across the Gulf that threw the Louis Vuitton Cup into chaos. For nine of the 21 scheduled race days since the trials started Oct. 1 the wind has blown too hard or too little -- usually too hard.

The only recent excitement occurred when software billionaire Larry Ellison, bedeviled by four losses in five races, replaced Peter Holmberg with Chris Dickson as helmsman-skipper of his Oracle BMW boat from San Francisco.

Holmberg was the world's No. 1-ranked match racer. Ellison praised his skill as a driver but ... "We pick one leader and I support that one leader right up until the very moment we make a change," he said.

With Holmberg on the beach and the popular Paul Cayard on payroll exile in San Francisco, Dickson drove the boat to a victory over Italy's hapless Mascalzone Latino in his only appearance before Monday, as the rest of the fleet grew ever more restless with the weather.

For that, the challengers have only themselves to blame. They can't control the weather, but they do make their rules. They won't start a race if the wind is blowing at more than 19 knots and will stop a race if the wind is blowing at more than 23 knots.

Weekend sailors commonly race in 19 knots, and 23 knots (26 1/2 mph) is not extreme.

But the challengers came to believe before the previous Cup in 1999-2000 that the wind would blow harder during their trials in the New Zealand spring than it would in February, when their survivor would meet the defender, Team New Zealand. That left them with the choice of building stronger, slower boats to survive rougher conditions, or building lighter, faster but more fragile boats that would be more competitive in the Down Under summer.

The solution: wind limits.

The joker in the hand they dealt themselves is that the scheme may be based on a false premise. In February 2000, when the winds were supposed to be light, they peaked at decent speeds of 13, 13, 16, 10 and 24 knots for the five races, all of which had similar results: runaway wins by TNZ over Italy's outclassed Prada. And two days were abandoned when the wind blew too hard.

So this is the fine mess the challengers have gotten themselves into.

"You can't get frustrated," says Peter "Luigi" Reggio, the principal race officer from Connecticut whose job it is to get the races run. "Otherwise, you'd go nuts. This is the way it is, and you've gotta deal with it."

The rules also say that Round Robin 2 must be completed next Sunday to allow time for boats to be repaired and altered before the quarterfinals start Nov. 12. So Reggio has stacked the schedule with shorter 12.5-mile makeup races in the mornings before the regular 18.5-mile races in the afternoons.

Only one of the nine challengers will be eliminated by next week, and that's between winner Mascalzone Latin with a 1-9 record before Monday and France's winless Le Defi Areva.

But there are serious issues at stake for the other teams too. In the new Louis Vuitton Cup arrangement, the top four will advance to the double-elimination bracket of the best-of-seven quarterfinal matchups; the other four will fall into the single-elimination group. Switzerland's Alinghi, well funded by young pharmaceutical billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli and well driven by New Zealand defector Russell Coutts, and Seattle's One World seem certain to make the top four, but everyone else is scrambling -- especially Team Dennis Conner. The America's Cup's best-known impresario seems to have been hurt by last July's sinking of one of his Stars & Stripes boats off Long Beach more than he admitted or anyone suspected. That boat, USA 77, is still being repaired, and the other, USA 66, apparently is not fast enough.

Team DC slipped to 4-7 with its third consecutive loss to unheralded Sweden (5-5) Monday and still had to face Oracle BMW later in the day.

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