Strong winds, big seas, sheets of rain and a sky the color of an old bruise greeted the two surviving America's Cup challengers this morning. It seemed an apt setting for a bruising battle between powerful foes.

But northeast winds have swept the Hauraki Gulf two full days, pushing seas into three- and four-foot breakers. The seas proved unmanageable and racing between AmericaOne and Prada was called off at 9:30 a.m., delaying for 24 hours a showdown that's been brewing three months.

Winds are expected to moderate Wednesday, dropping to 10 to 15 knots, so further delays are unlikely. That would suit both skippers, who expect a dogfight and are keen to get on with it.

Today's delay may have benefited AmericaOne. The U.S. team reportedly suffered damage while training in 20 to 24 knots of wind Monday. Crewmen from Team New Zealand, who were nearby practicing in the big winds, reported the U.S. race boat was towed in early and may have damaged a spinnaker pole and mainsail battens.

AmericaOne skipper Paul Cayard denied that and gave his crew the day off after racing was canceled.

AmericaOne and the Italian crew on Prada are in a best-of-nine showdown for the right to meet Team New Zealand for the Cup next month. Both teams exhausted massive human and financial resources to get this far and neither is likely to go down without a scrap.

"I've said it will go seven to nine races," said Cayard, "so we're going to lose some. It may be about who can get back up. There could be some heartbreakers, some one-second losses.

"I see this as a nine-round heavyweight bout," he said. "You have to play your rounds carefully. Each one counts but even if you lose the first two, the goal is still the same. You still have to win five."

Likewise the Italians, who have spent 2 1/2 years and more than $50 million preparing, are ready. "I think it's like when you go to an exam," said skipper Francesco deAngelis. "It's not like you can study the day before. You have to rely on what you've done and if you studied enough, you try to sleep and be ready the next day."

The two boats are close enough in speed that racing is likely to be tight. On shore, battles could be just as fierce. The Italians are said to be preparing two possible protests. One reportedly questions the legality of AmericaOne's mast, on grounds it may have been built using some of the technology employed by other U.S. syndicates. Sharing technology is forbidden by Cup rules.

Another would question the fitness of AmericaOne to sail for the Cup. Cayard's team early in the regatta admitted to an oversight in establishing in a timely way the nationality of backup crewman Ralf Steitz. Steitz, a longtime U.S. resident from Germany, was later ruled eligible to sail but AmericaOne was fined for the clerical oversight.

Cup rules require that the winning challenger sign a document before racing the defender, declaring it followed all rules in competition leading to the Cup match. Should it be unable to do so, the challenger slot goes to the No. 2 finisher in trials. Prada may claim the clerical oversight renders AmericaOne unable to sign.

Prada filed protests on similar grounds against Stars & Stripes when that U.S. team threatened to topple the Italians in semifinals. The protests were rendered moot when Stars & Stripes fell out of the running.

Asked if protests were in the works against AmericaOne, deAngelis answered opaquely: "There are rules and if the rules are not broken, there are no reasons to make any protests."