AmericaOne was finishing a few tests on the Hauraki Gulf, checking a new mainsail and spinnaker before Tuesday's start of the America's Cup challenger finals. The sun was out, the wind kicked up whitecaps, the boat felt fast, skipper Paul Cayard was smiling and the mood was upbeat.

In the distance, Italian entry Prada, the last remaining obstacle to Cayard's quest to sail for the Cup, appeared under tow headed for harbor, its testing finished. "There goes the enemy," someone said to mainsail trimmer Terry Hutchinson of Annapolis.

"That's not the enemy," he replied with a smile. "That's just a bump on the way to the enemy."

If Hutchinson sounded cocky, he's not alone. Much can be learned by the way a skipper and crew behave in the days before a big America's Cup showdown, and the sailors of AmericaOne do not look worried.

On Tuesday, they begin a best-of-nine series to determine who advances to the Cup match against Team New Zealand.

Opponent Prada is formidable. The two boats raced five times in the three-month-old Cup season; Prada won the first two, AmericaOne the last three. All were decided by a minute or less except for one semifinal, settled when Prada's mast crashed to the deck.

Under race rules, last weekend the teams dropped shrouds that have hidden their hulls and keels all season. What lurked below was no surprise--very similar hull shapes and reasonably similar keels, winged ballast bulbs and rudders.

"The performance of the boats will probably be pretty close over a broad range of conditions," AmericaOne designer Bruce Nelson said. "The difference might be two seconds a mile. It will be interesting to see which boat enjoys that advantage and in what conditions. But it's going to be close, and performance of the sailing team will make the difference."

"It's taken three regattas [in International America's Cup Class boats] to figure out what works," said Prada designer Doug Peterson, who co-designed the last two Cup winners, America{+3} and Team New Zealand. "But all the boats are closer now. This America's Cup is about sailing, not just boat design. Now we'll see the sailors playing a bigger role, which is good for the event."

And, by AmericaOne's assessment, good for them.

From the outset, Cayard said he would be happy to get to the challenger finals against Prada in equal equipment. He knows rival skipper Francesco deAngelis well; the two sailed together for years on Italian big-boat teams, deAngelis steering and Cayard calling tactics.

Are they friends? "We are competitors," deAngelis said. "Maybe after, we can be friends."

First, there is the matter of survival. On paper, it doesn't look like a fair fight. Cayard, at 40, is at the top of his game, focused and well prepared for his fifth Cup campaign. He's an expert match racer. Twice before he has sailed a series finale for the Cup, losing both times to faster boats. In equal equipment, he will be dangerous.

Cayard has surrounded himself with top young talent--Hutchinson, a J-24 world champion; Olympic aspirant Morgan Larson; Whitbread and America's Cup veteran John Kostecki as tactician; Cup veteran Lexi Gahagan as navigator; and world match-racing champion Gavin Brady as strategist.

The stream of information coming to Cayard, as overheard over onboard microphones, is notable for its certainty. A minute before a start, Kostecki will sift through the advice of many and say decisively: "Left side is good," or "We want the right." Cayard seems to trust him, which frees him to carve out space to get to the favored side using his match-racing skill without worrying whether the information is correct.

By contrast, deAngelis, in his first Cup, relies almost entirely on Star-class world champion Torben Grael for tactical input. Grael is by all accounts very good, but he is in his first Cup and does not have the breadth of input.

"We may not have as many famous names," said deAngelis, "but the system is the same. It is our first time, but we are making it together, and that is good."

On its side of the ledger, Prada has been practicing as a team 2 1/2 years as opposed to one year for AmericaOne. Boathandling and crew work were good from Day One; gear has been tested and is unlikely to break. And the massive budget of more than $50 million provided by fashion magnate Patrizio Bertelli has enabled Peterson and the design team to test various hull, rig and sail combinations to find the best. If it comes down to a battle of will and experience vs. a slight speed edge, as many expect, Cayard's experience and leadership could prove critical. Sailors who have been around the Cup say Cayard is making all the right moves.

"He gave a little pep talk the other night," said Ralfie Steitz, who used to sail with Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes but now is a backup crewman on AmericaOne. "It reminded me of Dennis when he was young and really into it. Paul told us to stay calm, that this is nine races and you only have to win five. If things don't go well at the beginning, we're not going to panic."

"At team meetings," said Hutchinson, "Paul says he feels better about this series than any other he's been in. He's seen the movie often enough, he knows what the other side is going through. He's been through it himself.

"These guys [Prada], if they get us down, they'd better be able to close it, because we're not going to let up. Likewise, if we get them down, we're ready to close it. The hardest thing about winning is putting yourself in position to close it out. We're relying on Paul's experience to do that."