The pressure is building in Auckland, New Zealand, as a half-dozen sailing teams get ready for crunch time in the America's Cup.
When racing opened in October, 11 challengers were on hand to fight for the right to race Team New Zealand for yachting's top prize in February. It took more than two months to cut the field by less than half. Now, in two weeks of racing starting Jan. 2, four of the remaining six challengers will be eliminated.
Louis Vuitton Cup semifinals that start the day after New Year's have each boat sailing twice against its five rivals in a double round robin. The two with the best records advance to the best-of-nine Louis Vuitton Cup finals Jan. 25; the other four go home.
Of the contenders, three are well-funded, two-boat campaigns and three are budget-minded, one-boat campaigns. Three are from the United States and three are from elsewhere. All are survivors of a long Cup season, but that will change. Who's going to make it over the next hurdle?
Logic dictates that the well-financed, two-boat campaigns--Japan's Nippon Challenge, San Francisco's AmericaOne and Italy's Prada--stand the best chance. But already one well-financed, highly touted two-boat campaign has fallen and a second, less wealthy two-boat team has been eliminated.
The New York Yacht Club's $40 million Young America effort crashed spectacularly after its first boat cracked in half and almost sank in heavy seas in November. Young America's crew switched to another boat but was eliminated before the semifinals, in seventh place with a 16-13 record.
That shocker still has Cup fans buzzing. "Just 2 1/2 months ago most people considered Young America to be a shoe-in as an LVC semifinalist," wrote Chris Larson, the Annapolis sailor who was tactician and later helmsman aboard Abracadabra, another U.S. two-boat entry that failed to make the cut. "It just goes to show what a [near] sinking and five weeks of extreme pressure for some of the best sailors in the world can do.
"They never seemed to be able to get on a roll, mostly due to mechanical failures, difficult sailing conditions and poor sailing," said Larson, whose own team came up lacking because of a $20 million shortfall in a $30 million planned budget.
Even John Marshall, the Young America syndicate chief, conceded: "We lost races with fast boats."
So how scary is it now to be squaring up against three well-financed, two-boat teams? I asked that of Dawn Riley, syndicate chief of America True, a one-boat operation out of San Francisco that easily made the semifinals.
"Well, two of the two-boat teams already are gone," she said, alluding to the early departures of Young America and Abracadabra. "So we're not too concerned."
America True is the Cup's Cinderella story. It has the first mixed crew, with three women on the 16-person team for most races. Riley works the pit at the base of the mast, handling halyards and other lines that raise and lower sails and gear. Lisa Charles-McDonald and Katie Pettibone hold down regular spots; all three are veterans of women's campaigns in the Whitbread 'Round-the-World Race and previous America's Cups, but have not raced with men at this level.
America True's next-door neighbor in the Cup village is Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes, another low-profile, low-budget, one-boat campaign that has done well under helmsman Ken Read after a rocky, 4-6 record in the first round robin in October.
The third one-boat team is the French Le Defi Francais under skipper Bertrand Pace, known as "The Little General." Le Defi also had a rocky first round but replaced its industrial-grade keel and rudder with high-tech upgrades and proved quick in light air in subsequent rounds, winning seven straight races in November.
For all their successes, the one-boat campaigns have a hard road ahead. Their better-equipped rivals are spending time to great advantage these days, two-boat testing on the Haruki Gulf to develop incremental speed advantages by tweaking sails, sailing techniques and rig settings and testing underwater appendages.
"We do a series of 10-minute tests," said Bob Billingham, AmericaOne's syndicate manager. "On a good day we get 10 or 12 in. We line up the boats so they're not interfering with each other and then sail them hard."
As the two-boat teams etch twin wakes over the sun-splashed gulf, they are closely followed by technical teams on chase boats measuring every change in speed against the baseline of the other boat's simultaneous performance. One-boat teams must try out improvements without a baseline to measure against.
Additionally, the two-boat teams all have new boats to race in the crucial rounds. Both Prada and Nippon unveiled second-generation race boats before the final round-robin last month. Nippon's proved a big improvement on their first boat, while Prada's seemed not remarkably faster. Still, Prada, with the regatta's biggest budget at $50 million to $70 million, remains the favorite with only three losses in 2 1/2 months of racing.
AmericaOne (22-8) is the dark horse under Cup veteran Paul Cayard. The San Franciscan is now in his fifth campaign and is widely considered the top big-boat skipper in the world. AmericaOne is the only team not to have unveiled its second boat in competition.
If USA 61, the last boat built for this Cup and the only one not yet seen on the race course, proves significantly faster than its stablemate when it debuts in the semifinals, it could knock Prada from the favorite's perch.
Cayard has said from the beginning that if he has equal equipment to his closest rivals, he's confident he can win the Louis Vuitton Cup.
Time will tell if he does, and time is finally growing short.