The first round of America's Cup trials started with a bang two weeks ago as 11 competitors from around the world convened for four months of spirited racing, but limped to a finish today as the last races of round robin one were fitfully completed.
With the breeze up in the 18- to 20-knot range for the second straight day, gear failure put a damper on the long-awaited matchup of the top two U.S. entries. Like a half-dozen races the day before, the showdown between AmericaOne and Young America fell apart when AmericaOne was unable to hoist a mainsail because of damage, sailed two legs under headsail only and finally dropped out halfway through the race.
Young America sailed the last seven miles alone on windswept, whitecapped seas to improve its record to 8-2, the same as AmericaOne. The two thus finish the round tied for second place behind the high-flying Italian entry Prada, which finished a perfect 10-0.
AmericaOne skipper Paul Cayard won one delay from race directors 45 minutes before the start to fix a batten that popped from off its groove on the sail, but when it popped out again just a few minutes before the start, rendering the sail unusable, his second request for time to fix it was denied.
Cayard entered the starting box on time with a man up the mast and sparred with Young America skipper Ed Baird using only his jib for power as the crew frantically tried to repair the mainsail, but when the gun sounded and the boats headed upwind, it was a rout. The mainsail never got fixed and Cayard headed back to the dock after two legs.
In that respect the showdown resembled half a dozen races from the day before, when strong winds and big seas left only two of eight races intact. In the others, contestants raced around the course alone or damage put boats so far apart, it was hard to tell who was racing whom.
"Days like that are not good for our sport," said AmericaOne tactician John Kostecki. "They make us look bad."
"It was embarrassing," said former Cup skipper Bruno Trouble, who watched in horror on Wednesday as some competitors never showed up, others called for postponement after postponement because of gear trouble and others just quit.
The problem was wind, which in most circles is what sailors want. A two-day northeasterly came in at 18 to 20 knots and you'd have thought it was a hurricane.
"Sailing these boats in these conditions, you're at the mercy of wind and wave," said Nippon skipper Peter Gilmour. "You can't move the ropes fast enough to get the sails in. It's very difficult, but a lot of fun. It's also extremely dangerous."
Gilmour was one of the few who managed to complete a genuine race Wednesday and it was a beauty as Nippon beat America True by one second. The yellow U.S. entry came roaring up from astern on the spinnaker run to the finish and fell just short of overtaking Nippon at the gun.
The only other genuine two-boat race was Prada's easy win over the Hawaiian entry Abracadabra, but that race wound up in controversy as Abracadabra skipper John Kolius protested the race committee's refusal to give him time to fix a prestart rudder problem. He lost the race by nearly six minutes, won the protest late Wednesday night, got a chance to resail the race today and this time was beaten by only 1 minute 59 seconds.
Six other races on Wednesday were either walkovers, as one boat sailed around the course alone after the competition failed to show, or runaways, as in Stars & Stripes' 19-minute win over Young America.
In the midst of it all, Team New Zealand, readying its Cup defense for a race against the best challenger in February, flew through the ragtag fleet with spinnakers up and drawing on its two new boats, the crew all but thumbing their noses at the confusion.
So it goes in this budding Cup summer as some challenger teams that look barely ready to race begin the countdown to a Cup match that is still, mercifully, four months away.