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AmericaOne New Zealand Chronicles:
Racing on the Edge

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by John Bertrand, Quokka Sports

Friday, January 29, 2000

Auckland, NZ

Today we saw two teams racing on the edge. Starting in 20-plus knots under semi-blue skies and four- to five-foot seas, Prada and AmericaOne took flight. The boats were being sailed beautifully, but there was zero room for error.

As a backdrop to that, AmericaOne had already replaced its bowman after an injury sustained while up the mast. In two of my previous America's Cups I've had the same situation. We had guys up the mast making sure that the main halyard worked. In 1983 with Australia II, Scottie McCallister had his arm broken as the mast crane collapsed on top of him, pinning him up there and knocking him unconscious in the process. A very serious situation developed. We finally got him down. And all before the damned race.

How to take stock, how to clear the mind, how to get on with it with total focus? A big challenge for anyone, regardless of how much experience you may have. Cayard and his team had to do that today -- lousy pre-start preparation, I can tell you! But these guys are pros. This is what they do. They get on with it, make the best of any situation, no matter what.

We saw a great drag-race up the first beat. Nothing between the two boats -- perhaps half a boat length differential on the long starboard board off the line. At this stage we had 24 knots of wind, seas building. Perhaps it was an error by Prada in tacking too soon before getting to the port layline -- hard to tell without being on the boat. Around the top mark, Torben Grael and Francesco de Angelis would have been feeling pretty lousy, having lost out in a fast-shoe-shuffle to Cayard and Kostecki. Spray was flying everywhere, bilge pumps working overtime. No place for the inexperienced.

Action on the first run: Prada sailed fast on the long square run, rig fully pressed, winches whirring, grinders earning their income, sucking for oxygen between each wave as they were ooching and pumping their 85-foot carbon-fibre projectiles down the five-foot waves. This was what these guys were born for.

Then we saw an underestimation by Cayard and Kostecki, not being able to cross Prada's bow. AmericaOne was thrown into a fast gybe with not enough preparation. In these conditions this led to deterioration, big-time. AmericaOne's big green spinnaker got out of control. The wheels started to fall off. A 270-degree penalty to AmericaOne. Cayard and Kostecki did not need that.

It's easy for people to comment and draw conclusions at the tactics being laid out in a race like this. But I can tell you that in these conditions, one second out in your timing can make the whole manoeuvring of these boats fall apart in a very, very rapid fashion.

The 16 crew members on each boat have to work together like a Swiss clock. One link in the chain breaks and the whole thing falls apart. These boats were sailing with compression loads of up to 50 tons. In all my sailing on oneAustralia, very rarely did we ever conduct racing in such tough conditions as we saw today. We had a pretty experienced team on that boat, with many America's Cups under its belt, but today would have been a real test of seamanship and split-second timing.

The race deteriorated for AmericaOne as it pressed itself harder and harder in an attempt to make up for lost time. The wheels fell off further: genoa lost over the side, genoa halyard not engaging in the halyard lock, blown spinnaker on the next run, mast starting to break up -- the whole thing was a nightmare for Cayard and his team. I know how it feels. These guys have been there and done it all before. Some of them had sailed with Cayard in their highly successful Whitbread Race, but not with the same fragility of equipment as these boats. They would never have thought it would have turned out like it did today, on the world stage. For these proud people, this was a horrible result.

Paul Cayard will go home tonight with a lot on his mind. He's down to one mast, no backup. There's a lot of wound-licking to be done, a lot of analysis to be completed, and a lot of catching up to do if another race in these weather conditions is going to be conducted -- and it could be. This will be a test of Paul's leadership. We could be at a very critical stage of this regatta. AmericaOne has some serious problems to solve, and it's racing against a very fast boat, against a crew which has gained enormously in confidence. The way AmericaOne comes out of the blocks for the next race is critical.

The Prada syndicate is showing the benefits of a longer development and tuning lead time. Not many people would have said that the Italians with the Brazilian tactician could have sailed around the track like they did today. Francesco de Angelis can be very happy and, in fact, very proud of his team tonight. He also knows that tomorrow's another day, but he and his team have that extra point under their belts, and no one can take it away from them.

The Italian supporters will be going nuts with this win. It's a big deal getting over the American onslaught with all the pre-race favouritism, particularly in such heavy conditions with such knock-'em-down, blow-'em-away situations. And the Italians came out clean.

But Francesco is a cool cat and the members of his inner sanctum are proving to be tough operators. He won't be listening to the back-slappers. He knows how hard it was to get around the track today with a clean skin. He knows how hard it was to get that point. Only those crews out there today know how tough the conditions really were.

Let the regatta continue.

In 1983 John Bertrand, skippering Australia II, became the first non-American to win the America's Cup, ending the New York Yacht Club's 132-year winning streak with a 4-3 victory against Dennis Conner. He is co-founder of Quokka Sports.



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