By beating Team Dennis Conner's STARS & STRIPES, the men and women of AMERICA TRUE cleaned up a hornet's nest of controversy that threatened to pull the America's Cup trials to their lowest level since they began back in October
The decisive win by AMERICA TRUE eliminated STARS & STRIPES from contention and Italy's LUNA ROSSA was propelled into the finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup against Paul Cayard's AMERICA ONE. The best of nine series begins on January 25.
Having made it to the finals, the Italian team withdrew its protest against STARS & STRIPES for allegedly using a mainsail designed by the YOUNG AMERICA design group. The use of such a sail would have contravened the rules concerning confidentiality of technical information among the challengers.
However, the Italians did not withdraw their request to have the International Arbitration Panel rule on whether STARS & STRIPES would have been eligible to compete in the America's Cup, had it won the trials. The Panel found Team Dennis Conner guilty of violating Article 8 of the America's Cup Protocol earlier for using an illegal rudder. The Protocol says that a team entering the America's Cup must declare, in writing, that it has abided by the rules throughout the series. The Italian challenge would like this matter cleared up for the record.
AMERICA TRUE won her race on the starting line when helmsman John Cutler headed off on port tack at the committee boat and steered the big yellow boat over to the right side of the course. STARS & STRIPES sailed the other way on starboard tack and the pair separated for nearly five minutes. Allowing such separation was a strange move for STARS & STRIPES, a boat that had everything to lose, racing against a boat that had nothing to lose and almost nothing to gain. AMERICA TRUE had been eliminated from contention days ago and was racing to round out the series in sportsmanlike fashion and to try for the one point that would keep her out of last place in the series. STARS & STRIPES had to win the race to stay in contention for a spot in the finals.
As the wind increased across the course from 8 to 12 knots, AMERICA TRUE picked it up first, and with the stronger pressure came a big shift to the right. By the time the highly experienced STARS & STRIPES crew got over to the new wind, they could only watch while their opponent and any hope of advancing to the Louis Vuitton finals - and the America's Cup - sailed into the distance.
Both boats got lifted up to the mark on starboard tack, with AMERICA TRUE directly ahead of Dennis Conner's big blue boat from San Diego, and increasing the distance all the time. At the first mark AMERICA TRUE had a lead of a minute and a half. From there Cutler and his co-ed crew, led by syndicate head Dawn Riley, were never threatened. STARS & STRIPES gained and lost a bit through the rest of the race, but never got within a minute of the San Francisco boat.
For Riley, Leslie Egnot, Lisa Charles-McDonald and Katie Pettibone, who were aboard AMERICA TRUE, there were tense moments as they worked out their big lead over Team Dennis Conner. In 1995 these four were aboard MIGHTY MARY in the final challenger race against the 1995 version of STARS & STRIPES, with many of the same crew who were aboard during Friday's race.. That fateful day, the women's team had a lead of more than four minutes on STARS & STRIPES when they rounded the final weather mark and headed for the finish. However, in the light and very tricky conditions, STARS & STRIPES was able to find private patches of wind and overtake the women's boat to win and knock them out of the running. This time it was STARS & STRIPES that was knocked out.
At the post-race conference, Riley said, "The four women on the boat, when we were a few boat lengths ahead, were very, very nervous. The guys had no idea what we were talking about. But there was a range finder shot that indicated we were so many boat lengths ahead. Katie Pettibone turned around and said, 'at least it's not 44,' because that was how far we were ahead (in 1995) before we lost."
When the International Jury convened to accept the Italians' withdrawal of their protest against Team Dennis Conner, the Italian spokesman Alessandra Pandarese said "there is no reason to proceed, so we see no justification to persist."
STARS & STRIPES agreed to allow the protest to be dropped, but in doing so issued the following statement: "Tom Whidden, Mike Toppa, and Ken Read are extremely offended by the accusations of Prada. We've come prepared with a compete defense. Furthermore, Tom Whidden and North Sails have tried very hard for many years to uphold North's confidentiality agreements and Team Dennis Conner's record of abiding by the rules. For the sake of the sport we allow Prada to drop the protest, a protest which we feel was frivolous." Whidden is the president of North Sails, STARS & STRIPES helmsman Ken Read is manager of North's Newport, RI., loft and trimmer Mike Toppa is manager of the Annapolis, MD, loft.
In announcing the jury's decision to drop the protest, Chairman Bryan Willis said, "The jury recognizes that the accusations in the protest were serious and that individuals' reputations were brought into question. The jury is concerned that not proceeding with the hearing would mean that these issues would not be addressed. However, the request to withdraw has the support of STARS & STRIPES, therefore the request to withdraw the protest is approved."
The performance of the Italian and St. Francis Yacht Club teams throughout the long challenger eliminations, which began October 18th, had indicated they would meet in the Louis Vuitton Cup finals. The strong surge at the end by STARS & STRIPES, which had not performed well in the first two rounds, was typical of a Dennis Conner program, which always seems to be able to come up with important wins when the pressure is on. This time the stretch drive was not quite good enough.
AMERICA ONE and LUNA ROSSA are similar boats, with a lot of strengths and very few weaknesses. The American team has been using its second boat, USA 61, during the semifinals, while Italy's Prada challenge, reverted to its first boat, ITA 45. They now have several days before they meet again on the race course, and during that time they will decide which of their boats they will use in the finals. There seems no doubt that Cayard will go with USA 61, which he says is a bit better than the earlier AMERICA ONE in all conditions. The Italians might have a tougher choice, as there was disagreement in December as to which of their very fast boats should be entered in the semifinals.
Either way, the best five out of nine final series is not likely to end with the fifth race.