AS THE America's Cup community quickly, and somewhat pitilessly,
put the sinking of oneAustralia 95 behind it last week, the field
was reduced from 10 hopefuls to seven: four international
challengers and three U.S. defenders. The yachts in the challenger
fleet that were eliminated after four rounds of racing -- France3,
Rioja de Espana and Sydney '95 -- packed their sails and went
home. They were poorer, probably no wiser, but able to look their
backers in the eye and say, ``At least no one was killed.''
That may change, incidentally. French skipper Marc Pajot could be
lynched by the French tabloids, having spent $33 million -- $14
million of it public funds -- on a campaign that careened on two
wheels from Day One, when a crane dropped a spanking new French
yacht, France2, onto the pavement in the French compound, forcing
the keel strut through the boat's deck. That set the campaign back
by three weeks and half a million dollars. Before it was all over,
both France2 and its successor, France3, proved slow; France3's
mast broke in half while it was leading a pivotal race, and two
sailors fell overboard. ``The French press has been very . . .
severe,'' a shaken Pajot said while bidding adieu last Friday. It
was reliably reported he was returning to Paris by way of Borneo
So Europe has been eliminated, and the four remaining challengers
are all from the Pacific. The strongest of these syndicates, by
far, is Team New Zealand, whose Black Magic 2, with Russell Coutts
as skipper, is undefeated on the water in 24 races. (The team did
lose one race due to protest when, contrary to the rules, it sent
a man aloft to scan the horizon for signs of wind.) The weakest is
Japan's entry, Nippon, which had an 11-13 record through the first
four rounds. The other two challengers -- oneAustralia, sailing
its second-string boat, and TAG Heuer, a second New Zealand
syndicate, headed by Chris Dickson -- are seen as evenly matched,
a notch below Team New Zealand.
The oneAustralia group, whose flagship yacht on March 5 became the
first America's Cup boat in 144 years to sink during a race,
enjoyed only a brief grace period before the humorists had at it.
Two days after the disaster, one of Team New Zealand's primary
sponsors, Steinlager beer, came up with a new slogan in a
full-page newspaper ad: ``There's one thing that goes down faster
than an Australian yacht . . . Steinlager.''
Glub, glub. That was just the beginning. OneAustralia jokes began
appearing last week like garbage floating in with the tide.
DNF (did not finish), oneAustralia 95's official result the day of
the catastrophe, now stood for Did Not Float.
``Why do the Kiwis have a glass-bottomed boat?'' one wag inquired.
``So they can keep an eye on oneAustralia.''
The company that designed oneAustralia 95, Fluid Thinking, had
its name changed to Fluid Sinking.
The unsympathetic tenor of this drollery was fueled by the dreaded
three-boat controversy, at the center of which was the yacht now
83 fathoms down. It is a long and convoluted story, which we will
try to boil down to its essence: The Australians, their opponents
claim, cheated by building too many boats.
After the excessive spending of the last America's Cup
competition, in 1992 -- Bill Koch built four boats at a cost of
some $68 million, ultimately successfully defending the Cup in
America[cubed] -- the powers-that-be decreed that no syndicate
could build more than two yachts for the 1995 campaign. The
Australians, however, appeared to circumvent the spirit of this
rule by having their two syndicates work in concert. Fluid
Sinking, er, Thinking, designed one yacht for Sydney '95 and a
second for oneAustralia, the syndicate headed by 1983 America's
Cup winner John Bertrand. Then those boats were tested against
each other to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Using
this information, the Aussies designed a third yacht, the one
that sank, for Bertrand's group. In December an international
jury exonerated the Australians of wrongdoing, but the rules
will be rewritten before the next America's Cup, and some
believe the accident was evidence that God is a fair-minded
Not that the Australians wasted much time bemoaning their loss. A
cartoon in the Sydney-based newspaper The Australian depicted
Bertrand adrift at sea, addressing his shell-shocked crew as a
huge wave is about to crash down on their heads: ``We're not
That's classic Bertrand, who trailed Dennis Conner 3-1 in '83
before storming back to become the first, and only, non-U.S.
sailor to win the America's Cup. He was plotting ways to make
the old oneAustralia faster almost before the new one had
settled on the bottom. After forfeiting one race to refit the
older boat, Bertrand's crew won the next two races, clinching
the second seed in the semifinal round, which is scheduled to
begin on Saturday. The Aussie crew members clearly didn't lose
their sense of humor. For their first start after the sinking,
they donned life jackets -- unheard of in America's Cup racing.
Still, moxie can take a team only so far, and Team New Zealand
will be a formidable obstacle for oneAustralia -- or anybody else
-- to get past. ``It's worrisome to see a team with that sort of
dominance in a fleet,'' says John Marshall, head of PACT 95, whose
Young America is the surprise leader of the defense syndicates.
``They have a good basic design,'' says Conner, referring to the
sleek, dart-shaped hull of Team New Zealand's Black Magic 2.
``They have the best sails. The crew is very strong. Russell
Coutts is a consistently good match racer. And their leader, Peter
Blake, is experienced. He knows how to run a team. They're just
solid, like the San Francisco 49ers.''
Indeed, the 47-year-old Blake's track record in sailing is, in its
own way, as impressive as Conner's. Blake won every leg of the
Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989-90. In 1994 he knocked four
days off the record for sailing around the world, accomplishing
the feat in 74 days, 22 hours, 17 minutes and 22 seconds in his
92-foot catamaran, ENZA New Zealand. He's currently the
International Yacht Racing Union's sailor of the year and has
received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II
for his sailing accomplishments. All that remains for him to win
is an America's Cup.
``Peter Blake's had his stamp on this effort right from the
start,'' says Coutts, 34, the world's second-ranked match racer,
who replaced Rod Davis as the starting helmsman on the Kiwi boat
in 1992. Davis is now Bertrand's helmsman, and Coutts has the
wheel of Black Magic 2 to himself.
Team New Zealand is taking all the praise the defenders are
showering on it with a grain of salt, remembering that in 1987 the
Kiwis ran roughshod over the competition, winning 35 of 36 races
going into the challenger finals before Conner's Stars & Stripes
blew their boat away. ``The defenders are great at playing
themselves down, and the op- position up,'' Coutts says. ``We're
not listening to their bull. The real racing's still ahead.''
Nearly everyone agrees with that assessment. After six America's
Cup campaigns, four of them victorious, Conner should know about
these things, and he says that everything that has happened up
till now has been a glorified exhibition season. The real games
That's good news to the women of America[cubed], who were just
5-16 through the first four rounds of the defender trials and
2-3 after the introduction of their new boat, Mighty Mary, which
to date has been a much-ballyhooed dud. (One of those wins came
after Stars & Stripes had posted a DNF because of difficulties
with its mainsail.) No matter. All you really need to know to
get caught up on the defenders is that after two months of
racing in the shifting, sometimes nonexistent breezes off San
Diego, Young America has a slight edge on Stars & Stripes and
Mighty Mary. The 12-race round-robin semifinal series, which
will reduce the defender field to two, amounts to a fresh start.
This much is clear, though. PACT 95 and its one-boat Young America
campaign have fared remarkably well, especially considering that
the Maine-based syndicate has the smallest budget of the U.S.
teams: $16.5 million, compared with $20 million for Team Dennis
Conner and America. In helmsman Kevin Mahaney, a 32-year-old
former Division III All-America lacrosse goalie at Middlebury who
didn't sail in his first regatta until he was 19, PACT 95 has the
youngest skipper. It also appears to have the fastest boat,
assuming Young America's hull, which was damaged on Sunday when
the boat was being towed out to sea for a practice session, can be
repaired. Young America's long, sleek hull thrives in the rough
water and light breezes off Point Loma and reminds many people of
Black Magic 2. ``Mahaney's boat looks pretty similar to ours,''
agrees Coutts. Downwind it has been especially quick compared with
Conner's Stars & Stripes.
``Stars & Stripes isn't spectacular in anything,'' says Conner,
who's rumored to be unhappy with his boat speed. ``But it's not a
dog in anything either. They're a little quicker than we are
downwind, we're a little quicker than they are upwind. You've got
to love the one you're with. You can't be in love with Christie
Brinkley, because you're not with her.''
Words to live by. Over the years, of course, Conner's skill as a
helmsman has made up for a lot of the failings of his boats, but
in this regatta he has been letting Paul Cayard do most of the
steering. The 36-year-old Cayard, from San Francisco, was skipper
of Italy's 1992 America's Cup finalist, Il Moro di Venezia. ``I
got him because he was like Deion Sanders,'' says Conner. ``He was
the best athlete available. I'd have been remiss not to sign him
and figure out how to use him later.''
Cayard is capable of flashes of brilliance during the critical
prestart maneuvering, when many races are won and lost, but he
also has moments of sheer boneheadedness. He effectively lost one
race in the fourth defenders' round, for example, when he brought
Stars & Stripes in- to the prestart area earlier than the
five-minute limit allowed, a blunder that cost his boat a
270-degree penalty turn. ``Sometimes your starting pitcher gets
nailed a little bit more at the start of the season,'' says
Conner, who plucks sports analogies out of the air like a toad
catches flies. ``I know Paul's got talent. I've got a game plan,
and I'm going to stick to it.''
All of which makes for a strange situation on Stars & Stripes: a
generational changing of the afterguard, with the old lion staring
over young Simba's shoulder. ``I'm surprised Dennis pulled himself
off the helm,'' says Robert Hopkins, Young America's navigator.
``If Dennis is on the boat, he might as well steer it. What else
is he good for? But we've only seen him steer when we're way, way
That may change, of course, now that the exhibition season has
ended. But whoever's at the helm of Stars & Stripes will have his
hands full against Mahaney -- a silver medalist in the Soling
class in the 1992 Olympics -- and his tactician, 30-year-old
John Kostecki, whose can-do attitude has come to symbolize the
spirit behind Young America. ``They don't sail by the textbook,''
says Marshall. ``They take some big chances and have more of a
loose and free-form style. The established rock stars in the sport
are ready to be supplanted by the next generation.''
It's too early to say if he's right, for the real racing is about
to begin -- with cutthroat tactics, mystery keels, high-tech
sails and who knows what other surprises the syndicates have been
holding up their sleeves. As sailors aboard the surviving
oneAustralia shout when tacking: ``Look out below!''