Shortly after the America's Cup landed in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1995, someone slipped into the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, waited till no one was around, pulled out a club and smashed the silver ewer.

The ruined trophy was shipped back to England, where it had been crafted a century and a half before, and repaired. Now it's back in its place of honor, shiny as new. Today, as 12 syndicates from around the globe prepare to open a 4 1/2-month quest for it in the breezy Hauraki Gulf off Auckland, the question is: Can the event regain its luster the way the trophy has?

It has been battered severely over the past decade after hitting a pinnacle of popularity in the 1980s, when first a group of rowdy Australians ended a 132-year U.S. winning streak in 1983 by knocking off the king of the Cup, Dennis Conner, 4-3 at Newport, R.I. Then Conner led an underpaid crew to Australia in 1987 to take it back in big winds and wild seas. He and his men got a Broadway parade and White House reception for their trouble.

The news since has not been good. Conner and crew deflected a challenge from a huge New Zealand boat in 1988, thrashing it with a little catamaran. Competitors spent more time in court than on the water, and the public was bewildered.

In 1992, Kansas multimillionaire Bill Koch spent more than $60 million to stave off a challenge from Italian multimillionaire Raul Gardini, who was said to have spent more than $100 million building five boats in his Il Moro di Venezia challenge. The world stifled a yawn over this duel; Koch prevailed. Gardini later committed suicide over business troubles.

In 1995, the first women's team made a splash but didn't get to the Cup finals. Conner and Koch concocted a rules change in the middle of the season that wound up sending Conner to the Cup match. He lost 5-0 off San Diego in winds so light the regatta was dubbed, "The Coma off Point Loma."

The runaway winner was Team New Zealand, which did a far better job capturing the Cup than protecting it from damage. TNZ has waited a ponderous 4 1/2 7/8 years to hold its first defense off Auckland.

The long wait ends Monday when the first round of trials opens for 11 challengers, including five from the United States. The winner gets to race Team New Zealand for the prize in February.

Can this regatta capture sports fans the way the 1987 event in Australia did? That remains to be seen. The pieces seem in place.

Auckland promises to provide far better winds than San Diego did, with a range of 10 to 20 knots expected daily and stronger gusts likely. The variety of winds and weather will make racing interesting, because some boats do better in light air and others do better in heavy air. He who guesses right in boat design has an edge.

Of five U.S. challengers, three are strong and the others could surprise. Paul Cayard's AmericaOne from San Francisco, the New York Yacht Club's Young America and Olympic medalist John Kolius's Aloha Syndicate from Hawaii all bring two new boats to the fray. Having more than one boat is considered the key to speed development because stablemates can run trial races against each other to test new sails and ideas. All three teams have solid budgets, though none is flush with cash.

The venerable Conner, in his eighth America's Cup campaign, brings a relatively bare-bones budget and one boat, but he has hired a terrific helmsman, Ken Read, and a crew of veterans. If his Stars & Stripes is competitive, they can get it around the course. The other U.S. entry, San Franciscan Dawn Riley's America True, brings the first mixed male-female crew to the 147-year-old event.

Among the six other challengers, only Italy's Prada, with a seemingly unlimited budget from the Milan fashion house of the same name, and Japan's fully funded Nippon, with veteran Aussie helmsman Peter Gilmour steering, bring two boats and high hopes. Spain, France, Switzerland and Australia round out the field with one-boat programs.

Whoever wins the challenger trials may wish he hadn't. Team New Zealand was so far ahead of everyone else at San Diego in 1995, it lost one race on the water all season. The Kiwis broke with Cup tradition in organizing their first defense. Instead of having open trials as the challengers do, then picking the fastest boat, syndicate chief Sir Peter Blake decided to allow only one team -- his.

So, while challengers compete for four months for the right to race for the Cup, building speed and skill out of necessity to survive, TNZ will be off by itself, testing and training in two new boats. That could be trouble. On the other hand, it means Blake's team has had no competition for finances in tiny New Zealand and has been fully funded from the beginning, which cannot be said for any challenger except perhaps Prada.

The Kiwis also have defending Cup champion helmsman Russell Coutts, a perennial top world match racer, and longtime tactician Brad Butterworth back in roles in which they proved all but unbeatable in 1995.

The challengers' first round robin will last a week.

The opening round is a low-key testing ground; each win is worth one point. In the subsequent round robins, wins will be worth four points apiece in Round 2 in November and nine points apiece in December's Round 3.

In January, the challengers' field will be winnowed to six based on the round-robin results. The six semifinalists race each other starting Jan. 2, with two finalists emerging. The two will race a best-of-nine series to decide the challenger, which will face Team New Zealand in a best-of-nine Cup series, beginning Feb. 19.

To the winner goes the buffed and repaired silver ewer that has signified the height of yachting achievement since 1852, and the right to hold the next Cup regatta three or four years down the road in his (or her) home town.

Racing Schedule

Louis Vuitton Challengers Cup

Round Robin One: Oct. 18-24.

Round Robin Two: Nov. 6-18.

Round Robin Three: Dec. 2-14.

Semifinals (six boats): Jan. 2-11.

Challenger Finals (two boats, best of nine races): Jan. 25-Feb. 4

America's Cup Finals (top challenger vs. Team New Zealand, best of nine races): Feb. 19-March 4.

CHALLENGERS AND DEFENDER

AmericaOne

Five-time Cup sailor Paul Cayard, who shocked the sailing world when he won the 1998 Whitbread 'Round-the World Race on his first try, is back for his fifth try for the Cup with a highly rated two-boat campaign based out of San Francisco. He has top crew, including Olympic medalist John Kostecki and J-24 world champion Terry Hutchinson in the afterguard. Cayard landed prime corporate sponsors Ford and Hewlett-Packard but has struggled to reach an estimated $30 million budget.

The first of AmericaOne's two new boats is in Auckland but the second won't arrive till the semifinals in January. Both are designed by Bruce Nelson, who designed 1995 defender Young America.

Young America

The New York Yacht Club held the Cup for 132 years before losing it to Australia II in 1983. The club wants it back and has assembled a competitive, two-boat team under skipper Ed Baird, who coached Team New Zealand when it won in 1995. Young America is led by syndicate chief John Marshall, in his eighth Cup campaign. The boats are designed by Annapolis resident Bruce Farr, considered the top racing yacht designer of the last 20 years.

The club has a big budget of more than $30 million but landed no major corporate sponsors and has had to generate most of its cash from private donors. Both boats were launched in Auckland this summer with no prior testing. Key crew members are tactician Jim Brady, in his second Cup campaign, and longtime Cup figure Kimo Worthington.

Aloha Syndicate

Hawaii's first Cup entry puts veteran Olympian and Cup sailor John Kolius of Houston at the helm of a two-boat campaign. Kolius dropped out of the Cup after a tough round in 1987, when he was skipper of the high-profile New York Yacht Club challenge in Fremantle, Australia, and took much of the blame for a slow boat. Kolius coached the Italian team in 1992 and the women's America 3 team in 1995.

His respectable budget of about $20 million is underwritten by orthopedic surgeon Jim Andrews, who treats sports superstars when they have elbow and knee trouble and who built a dynasty with the medical chain Healthsouth. Kolius will get help in the afterguard from veteran navigator By Baldrige.

Stars & Stripes

Dennis Conner is back with his eighth Cup campaign. The first American ever to lose the Cup in 1983 was also the first to win it back in 1987. He comes to Auckland with a bare-bones, one-boat campaign and a crew of hardened sailing experts including helmsman Ken Read, tactician Peter Holmberg and navigator Peter Isler. Conner won friends in New Zealand when he elected not to shroud his boat, so everyone can see the shapely underbody; he is milking the event for what he can with an art gallery, museum and downtown bar.

Conner has come under fire for mounting low-budget campaigns ever since he won in 1987, but he is a clever foe and usually winds up a factor.

America True

San Francisco's Dawn Riley makes news again as the first female CEO of a Cup campaign. She was the first woman sailor on the America 3 team in 1992 and the first woman skipper with the women's boat Mighty Mary in 1995. Her one-boat campaign is underwritten by Chicago businessman Chris Coffin; the crew will be mixed, with veteran match racer John Cutler, a native New Zealander, at the helm and Leslie Egnot, skipper of the women's boat in 1995, calling tactics.

America True looks like a long shot to make the six-boat semifinals, but could surprise if designer Phil Kaiko has given the team a fast boat.

Prada

Italy's famous Milan fashion house is backing the best-financed team in the regatta with a budget of $40 million and climbing. The two-boat Italian campaign hired designer Doug Peterson, who helped draw up the 1992 and 1995 Cup winners, and has skipper Francesco de Angelis at the helm, a Cup first-timer who is highly regarded on the global big-boat scene.

Prada bought the assets of 1992 winner and 1995 contender Bill Koch. The team trained in the Koch boats for two years before launching its first new boat. The Italians have everything they need to win, but will crew work and afterguard decision-making match the level of the competition?

Nippon Challenge

The Nippon Challenge's fourth Cup effort puts Australian match-racing wizard Peter Gilmour at the helm. Gilmour coached Nippon last time around; his hand on the helm in racing should be an improvement. Nippon's two-boat campaign is directed by syndicate chief Tatsumitsu Yamasaki, who corralled a respectable $20 million or so for the effort. The two boats are designed for different ends of the weather spectrum -- a heavy one for the early round robins, when the wind is expected to blow hard, and a lighter one for the late round, when it should be less. This could be the year Japan's long and serious assault on the Cup pays off with a strong showing.

Spain

The one-boat Spanish campaign is well financed but has been plagued by tragedy and trouble. The team lost crewman Martin Wizner, who was killed in a training accident when a deck fitting blew up in his face on the Mediterranean, then it broke the mast while launching the new boat.

Spain was not a factor in its first two Cup campaigns in 1992 and 1995, but this team has better financing with support from King Juan Carlos, an avid sailor, and from the Spanish electric company Endesa. Helmsman is Luis Doreste, with his brother Manuel calling tactics.

Switzerland

The Swiss Fast 2000 entry marks Frenchman Marc Pajot's fourth attempt at the Cup. His previous efforts were for his native France, and he brought Frenchman Philippe Briand with him to design the Swiss boat. The campaign is based in Lake Geneva. It's an international team, with German Olympian Jochen Schumann at the helm, Italian Enrico Chieffi calling tactics and Spaniard Juan Vila navigating. Pajot had barely enough money to build one boat, which was delivered late to Auckland after financial troubles halted construction. His chances to win appear slim.

France

Perennial world match-racing contender Bertrand Pace will steer this one-boat effort with Thierry Pepponnet, also well known on the international racing circuit, calling tactics. The French crew is young, mostly under 30, and the budget is small, about $10 million, mostly coming from two French technology firms. Pace and Pepponnet will get help from tall, wiry Dutchman Marcel Van Triest, the navigator, which should make for good photos as he leans over to whisper advice into the ear of Pace, who is known as "the little general."

Young Australia

Comic relief is about all this underfinanced campaign should provide. Syd Fischer is heading up his fifth Cup attempt with almost no money. He's bringing his old, 1995 entry, which was slow in the last regatta, and manning it with a bunch of kids ages 18-25 and led by 20-year-old helmsman James Spithill, a two-time world dinghy champion. The budget is under $1 million, the boat is an aging warrior, the syndicate chief is 72 years old and the crew is the youngest in Cup history. If they win a race it will be an upset.

The Defender

Team New Zealand broke with Cup tradition by announcing after winning the 1995 finals that it would not hold trials to pick a defender next time around. TNZ syndicate chief Sir Peter Blake believes the country is too small to support more than one well-financed team, so he elected to keep the team together and work on developing fast boats and solid crew work internally, rather than having two or three Kiwi teams fight for the right to defend.

Whether the plan will work remains to be seen. While TNZ is off scrimmaging with itself in two new boats, 11 challenging teams will battle daily on the race course, hammer and tongs for four months and up to 60 races. Competition breeds speed, sailors say, and TNZ will face no real competition.

However, the New Zealanders have skipper Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth returning, along with sail design wizard Tom Schnackenberg and most of the 1995 crew. They had the fastest boat in San Diego by far and have had full financing in hand from the day they got home from San Diego, which is crucial to the design process. Most Cup observers reckon they will be tough to beat on their home waters come February.

1999 -- 2000 America's Cup

Eleven challenging teams from six nations, including five from the United States, will compete over the next 4A months for the Louis Vuitton Cup while two New Zealand boats test and train on a separate course. The best of the challengers meets the New Zealand defender in February in the best-of-nine match for the America's Cup. The match marks the 30th defense of the Cup, which has been won by U.S. boats 27 times.

The Boat

A new class of boats has been used since the 1992 competition, replacing the 12-meter boats used from 1958 to 1987. The International America's Cup Class boats are lighter and faster, longer and wider.

Crew Positions

Bowman

Sewer

Mastman

Pitmen

Grinders

Genoa Trimmer

Main Grinder/Hydraulics

Mainsheet Trimmer

Helmsman

Tactician

Navigator

Main sail and jib area is 50 percent larger, increasing to 3,000 from 2,000 square feet.

Spinnaker has nearly doubled in size, from 2,500 to 4,500 square feet.

Mast height increased to 110 feet from 86 feet and supports larger sail.

Dimensions

Overall length 75 ft.

Waterline length 57 ft.

Beam (width) 18 ft.

Draft (depth) 13 ft.

Mast height 110 ft.

Main/jib 3,000 sq. ft.

Spinnaker 4,500 sq. ft.

Displacement 37,000 lbs.

Jib hoist 80%

Spinnaker hoist 100%

Crew members 16

New lighter-weight hulls are 75 feet long and 13 feet deep with a lead bulb at the bottom of the keel for ballast.