Strong, cold winds rolled in from the south and distant Antarctica for the third straight day today, throwing more bumps in the way of teams struggling to get boats up to speed before the start of the 30th America's Cup regatta.
"There's every bit of 22 knots in that," said Duncan MacLane, pointing to the whitecapped seas as a hammering gust rolled down Hauraki Gulf near Rangitoto Island, where 11 challengers from seven nations begin four months of racing Monday.
MacLane, a boat design coordinator for the New York Yacht Club's Young America campaign, clung to the gunwale of a high-powered inflatable tender as it bounced along, following the syndicate's two new charcoal gray race boats while they sparred in mock battle in the choppy gulf.
But they did not spar long. With less than two days left before Cup trials get underway, skippers and crews from most syndicates were keen not to damage their craft. When the breeze ramped up to a steady 18 knots with higher gusts, sails were dropped and another training day was cut short.
In addition to Young America, the two silver Prada boats from Italy doused sails and took tows home from their tender; Dennis Conner's dark blue Stars & Stripes headed in after a short, solo shakedown run; Dawn Riley's bright yellow America True was towed in from a quick foray. "At this point all we want to do is make sure everything works," said the Cup's first female syndicate chief. "We don't want to break stuff before we even get started."
You might expect grizzled America's Cup sailors in state-of-the-art boats to welcome 18 knots of breeze in a relatively sheltered bay on the eve of the world's most prestigious regatta, but this Cup is arriving faster than some would like and many boats are so new--only a month or so out of the box--they have yet to be fully tested at the top range of racing conditions.
"A lot of people are going to have to learn how to set their boats up for bigger breezes while they're racing," said Doug Peterson, co-designer for Prada. "These new boats are narrower," he said, making them tippier than the last generation of Cup contenders, "and you have to develop sail shapes and settings to handle the bigger breezes. Most crews haven't had time to do that."
Only two types of boats were designed for this Cup, agreed By Baldridge, navigator on the Hawaiian entry Abracadabra. "Skinny ones and skinnier ones." Even to the untrained eye the fleet looks radical, with hulls so slim and vertical slab sides so steep, they seem overwhelmed by the towering masts and sails.
If the slender new Cup designs are a handful to keep upright, at least the crews know racing will not be held in certain conditions. Organizers of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the series that leads to selection of a challenger, has agreed to postpone the start of racing if sustained winds are over 18 knots, and to stop races if winds build to over 23 knots sustained. The aim is to give teams a chance to develop their boats for expected lighter winds in February, when the trials winner faces Team New Zealand in the 30th Cup match.
But even with the restrictions, "there will be some lopsided results" in the first round robin when the breeze approaches the cutoff, Peterson said. "Then the gap will close as the teams learn their boats."
Skippers drew first-round pairings Friday night at lavish opening ceremonies after a parade through town. The toughest first-day draw fell to Riley, female chief of America True, who on Monday faces back-to-back races against highly rated U.S. rivals Young America and five-time Cup veteran Paul Cayard's AmericaOne.
But Young America's syndicate chief, eight-time Cup contender John Marshall, warned against taking Riley's team lightly, which will have up to seven women sailors aboard. "They've been successful sparring against everyone they faced here except Prada," he said. "They could be a surprise."
The first series of round robins features a week of two races a day for the 11 challengers on a short, 13.5-mile course instead of the standard, 18.5-mile Cup course. The idea is to get every boat a measure of racing quickly, so crews can figure out what needs to be improved before more serious racing starts in November.
In round robin one, wins are worth just one point apiece; in round robin two in November they will be worth four and in December's round robin three they're worth nine. After that, the five lowest-scoring boats get sent home for Christmas and the remaining six press on to the January semifinals.
"Basically," said Baldridge, the Abracadabra crewman, "round robin one is a mulligan, a chance to see how you shape up without digging a hole. A win in round robin three is worth as much as nine races in round robin one. You can almost look at the first round as sail training."
Yet up and down the viaduct basin at the foot of Fanshawe Street, where all 12 teams including defending Team New Zealand are headquartered, sailors this weekend wore anxious and sometimes haggard looks. Crews for all five U.S. teams have been working long shifts getting the $3 million race boats ready. After a four-year wait, with radical new boats to optimize quickly in fluctuating wind conditions, they have "a lot on," as Stars & Stripes crewman Mike Toppa put it.
Winning the Cup, said Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealander who was first to climb Mount Everest nearly a half-century ago, "is another mighty challenge."
He was speaking of New Zealand's quest to defend the Auld Mug, but the words rang just as true for those who came here to take it away.
FIRST DAY PAIRINGS
Young America vs. America True; Nippon Challenge vs. Abracadabra 2000; FAST 2000 (Switzerland) vs. Prada; France vs. Stars & Stripes; AmericaOne vs. Spain.
Prada vs. Nippon; Spain vs. Young America; America True vs. AmericaOne; Young Australia vs. France; Abracadabra vs. FAST 2000.