Victory for the Italians would justify the tremendous effort expended by their superb design and sailing teams and the enormous expense undertaken by the Prada fashion house, which has sponsored the four-year effort. But to New Zealand, where sailboat racing is tantamount to a religion, possessing the America's Cup has for the past five years been a stimulus to the small and wavering economy, and a point of national pride in an island nation that has more sailboats per capita than any other. Losing it would be the equivalent of a near national disaster.
When the Kiwi team swept to a five-zero win over the American defenders in 1995 and brought the Cup to Auckland, they knew they possessed two America's Cup boats that were far in advance of any other IACC designs. NZL 32, which was used in the America's Cup and in the challenger semifinals and finals, and NZL 38, which had brought the team through the earlier rounds, stunned the sailing world by cruising through the rigorous season of match racing with only one loss. No matter which of the Black Magic boats was used, it was distinctly superior to the opposition.
It was with this head start over most other contenders that they set about designing the two boats that have been constantly refined and meticulously tuned over the past several months and aboard which the chosen band of New Zealand sailors, most of them champions many times over, and many of them veterans of the 1995 campaign, have honed their skills. Today the defenders announced that they have chosen NZL 60 over NZL 57, although it was a difficult choice as they are similar and both have proven superior to the 1995 models.
It is significant that the design team that came up with Italy's two Luna Rossas included San Diego's Doug Peterson, who had been co-designer with Laurie Davidson of the 1995 New Zealand boats. ITA 45, the Luna Rossa that will be used in the Cup match, looks a great deal like NZL 32, but is a little longer and has less sail area. Because both the Kiwis and Italians have used NZL 32 as the benchmark, the boats that meet Saturday for Race One of the Cup match will be similar in their basic parameters. Having less sail on longer hulls compared to the 1995 benchmark should better suit the stronger winds of the Hauraki Gulf.
The New Zealand design team, with Tom Schnackenberg as its coordinator and Laurie Davidson as its anchor man, may have gone a little further than the Italians in honing their boats for heavy weather-- the waterfront betting gives the home team the edge in winds above about 12 knots. Weather wisdom dictates that winds may be increasing over the next couple of weeks as New Zealand heads into late summer. The boats will be unveiled to the public and press tomorrow and educated eyes will be straining to see if there have been any alterations since they were unmasked before the Louis Vuitton finals. After the skirts are dropped no more changes can be made.
For some weeks it has been known that the defenders will race with an unusual mast, one which has only three spreaders instead of the usual four, with additional stiffness derived from "diamond" stays that crisscross the spar. Recently Team New Zealand announced that they will have a masthead reaching sail in their arsenal, similar to the ones used in the Whitbread Round the World Race last year. This could be used for close reaching in the event of a major windshift, or if the boats find themselves above the lay line and have to crack off for the weather mark. To help the rig support this sail, the mast has a set of long jumper struts above the top spreader.
As in April 1995, Russell Coutts will be the New Zealand skipper again and he has put together two complete teams of 16 men who have been racing NZL 57 and 60 against each other day after day for months. The Olympic Gold Medal winner and many-time world match-racing champion will be backed up by tactician and long time friend and sailing partner Brad Butterworth. Their knowledge of the Hauraki Gulf might be seen to give them the edge, but the Italians have just come through four months of intensive racing in these same waters and have proven themselves masters at predicting the wind patterns that have so often been described as unpredictable.
Meanwhile, the opposing camps are locked in a dispute over the race conditions announced by the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. The rules drawn up by the defenders call for penalty turns to be made immediately after a foul instead of any time during the race, and also stipulate that the boats will each carry an observer who will be stationed aft and will communicate by radio with the on-water referees to judge right-of-way situations. This observer would also be able to listen to the crew's discussions to gain a better understanding of their tactical thinking.
The Italians have objected to both of these rules, neither of which was used during the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series. They point out that having to do a penalty turn before or immediately after the start would effectively end the race right there, as an early lead in a match race nearly always results in victory. If a boat had to do a turn while on a downwind leg, the spinnaker would have to be dropped and again the separation in the boats would turn the race into a procession. Not only would this rule have too great an influence over results, the Italians argue, but it would also greatly detract from spectator interest. When a penalized boat is allowed to do its turn at any time during the race it must fight hard and perhaps take tactical risks it would not otherwise take in order to gain the approximately 40 seconds lead required to make the turn. This can result in more drama rather than less. A penalized boat that does not have to do its turn immediately may also be able to force the other boat into a foul, which would cancel out the first offense and put the boats back on even terms.
The Luna Rossa team sees the on-board observers as a possible disadvantage for them as there could be a language problem between the Italian crew and a judge who does not speak Italian. As decisions often have to be made very quickly in the heat of a match race, they feel there could be costly misunderstandings.
If questions cannot be settled between the teams, the International Arbitration Panel may have to be called upon to intervene. This panel has two members from the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, two from the New York Yacht Club and one independent member, who is from Brazil.
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