The coed crew on America True may be back-markers in this America's Cup, but they came up shining today with a timely trouncing of Stars & Stripes to end Dennis Conner's eighth Cup attempt and save the event from an ugly legal squabble.
The lopsided slaughter on the water by 1 minute 32 seconds ended a fight for the last spot in challenger finals a day early. With a win, Stars & Stripes would have tied the $50 million Prada campaign from Italy, forcing a sudden death showdown between the two Saturday.
Instead, Prada (7-3) wins the right to race a best-of-nine series against fleet leader AmericaOne (8-2) starting Jan. 25, with the winner facing Team New Zealand for the Cup in another best-of-nine series next month.
True's goal today was modest. "We don't want the wooden spoon," said Dawn Riley, first woman Cup syndicate chief ever. She was struggling to avoid last place after winning only once before in these 10-race semifinals. The win lifted True ahead of Le Defi Francais for fifth place and the French get the wooden spoon.
Meantime, Conner's vaunted luck--the X factor that seems to follow his team everywhere--finally gave out. Stars & Stripes likes a big breeze, but strong winds played out on Hauraki Gulf. The race was delayed more than an hour as a gentle sea breeze filled the air.
"Pray for wind," said Stars & Stripes helmsman Ken Read Thursday night after surviving one do-or-die match, beating AmericaOne by 22 seconds in moderate to strong winds to stay alive. Today's tag-on outing was a makeup for a race scrubbed earlier while Stars & Stripes repaired damage from a collision. Read may have prayed, but overnight the wind fell out.
The outcome puts an effective end to an ugly budding legal battle. With Stars & Stripes breathing down its neck in the standings, Prada's legal team filed two protests Thursday, one challenging the legality of Stars & Stripes's mainsail and the other challenging Conner's entry's fitness to race for the Cup after an earlier transgression cost him a race.
Both protests sought to have Stars & Stripes disqualified from the regatta--one for purportedly lifting mainsail technology from the vanquished Young America campaign in violation of regatta rules, the second charging that Conner's admitted use of an illegal rudder in his first semifinal race, for which he was docked a point, rendered him ineligible to race for the Cup should he win challenger trials.
The protests may now go forward but won't affect racing.
The protests hinted at the depth of passion affecting the Italians, who spent more than $50 million and 2 1/2 years preparing for this regatta only to wind up in danger of being overtaken by Conner's $10 million, last-minute, one-boat campaign.
AmericaOne vs. Prada in the finals is the showdown most Cup followers have hoped for and expected since 11 challengers convened here in October. Prada had the early advantage, building the best record in the fleet at 26-3 in preliminary trials as AmericaOne went 22-8.
But the Italians seemed to come unglued in the high-pressure semifinal knockout round. First they lost to Stars & Stripes convincingly, then to AmericaOne when Prada's mast snapped on the first leg. They lost to AmericaOne again in wild combat as Cayard attacked and passed at close quarters on the last leg of their second meeting.
For his part, Cayard said he didn't care which boat he met in the finals, maintaining Stars & Stripes would be tough because it's well sailed and dangerous when winds are up. But he said Prada is faster. By most assessments Prada is not only faster than Stars & Stripes, but also AmericaOne.
But Cayard's crew has developed into perhaps the best in the regatta, fully able to win even with a slight speed disadvantage.
Today's victory was especially sweet for America True, the first mixed male-female crew ever in the Cup with four women aboard who were on the all-women's entry Mighty Mary in 1995. That's the team that lost a staggering final race to Conner that year, which eliminated them from the competition. Conner came from 4 1/2 minutes behind on the last leg to dispatch the women in a dying breeze.
Riley was on the boat that day, as were Katie Pettibone, Leslie Egnot and Lisa Charles-McDonald. All were on America True today, but none was heard to mention the dispiriting race over onboard microphones.
Stars & Stripes tactician Tom Whidden did. "Compare this to the race against the girls," he told Read in a bid to buck him up as the boats separately parted the sunlit seas, hundreds of meters apart. "We're downright close."
But not close enough.
America True settled it quickly. Helmsman John Cutler picked the right side of the starting line, Read and Whidden chose the left, and when a shaft of stronger, favorable breeze rolled down the course it came to True first, vaulting the yellow boat 400 yards ahead. It never was close after the boats rounded the first turning mark 1 1/3 minutes apart.
Sailing back into harbor, Riley's crew flew a big, white spinnaker telling her supporters: "Thank You, True Believers."
CAPTION: Prada moves into challenger finals, best-of-nine competition vs. AmericaOne.