We were tooling around Spa Creek the other day, taking the skiff for one last spin before winterizing it, when we came upon a salty looking big blue sailboat at anchor, flying the New Zealand ensign and sporting an Auckland hailing port on the stern.

We stopped and were greeted by a ginger-haired woman of middle age who said she hadn't been back home since 1997, when she and her husband left on their "cruise."

"Do you have anything you want to send back?" I asked. "I'm heading down there next week to cover the America's Cup."

"America's Cup?" she answered without a pause. "Why, we call it the Kiwi Cup now!"

Now there's a proper cocky Kiwi. As the saying goes, a balanced New Zealander is one with a chip on both shoulders. But it's not easy being from a remote island of 4 million souls thousands of miles from anywhere when you have to compete in the global mix against the world's superpowers. When you win, Kiwis figure, why not blow your horn as loud as you can?

Her remarks got me thinking: When do we start to call it the Kiwi Cup? As the young Cup season enters the knockout rounds of challenger trials on the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland his week, Kiwis are on and behind the scenes of all the good boats.

Quarterfinals of the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series begin on Monday after two round-robins last month narrowed the field from nine boats to eight. One month into the five-month series, all three top challenger teams are Kiwi-infested.

Alinghi, the Swiss boat that stands atop the rankings with a 13-3 record, is skippered by Russell Coutts, the New Zealander who won the Cup for his native country with a 5-0 shellacking of Dennis Conner in 1995 and successfully defended it with a 5-0 shellacking of the Italian challenger Prada in 2000. He was lured away from the homeland by pharmaceutical billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli. When he defected, Coutts took along his longtime Kiwi tactician, Brad Butterworth, and a half-dozen top crewmen from Team New Zealand. They're acting as if they feel right at home on the race course, and why not? They are.

OneWorld, the U.S. entry from Seattle, also compiled a 13-3 record in the early trials but lost one point on a technical dispute and as a result stands third in the rankings. OneWorld's on-the-water record suggests it will remain a powerful contender, as it should be. Plans for the boat were drawn by Laurie Davidson, the New Zealander who led the design team for the last two winning Kiwi boats. He was lured away by billionaires Craig McCaw and Paul Allen, OneWorld's bankers, who also hired a half-dozen crewmen from Team New Zealand 2000 to whip the boat around the course. (The helmsman and the skipper, James Spithill and Peter Gilmour, also are from Down Under, but across the Tasman Sea in Australia.)

Oracle/BMW, San Francisco computer software billionaire Larry Ellison's challenger, finished the round-robins at 12-4 but took second place in the rankings because of OneWorld's penalty. Oracle was designed by Bruce Farr, the transplanted Kiwi who lives in Annapolis and has been the most successful big-boat designer in the world for two decades. His charcoal gray 75-footer is skippered by Chris Dickson, a Kiwi native who led the first New Zealand Cup challenge in 1987 and another in 1992. Dickson has veteran Kiwi sailors John Cutler and Graham Fleury on the crew.

These three boats with their key New Zealand connections dominated the early rounds of sailing. The other six challengers -- Italy's Prada, Sweden's Victory, England's Wight Lightning, Conner's Stars & Stripes, France's Le Defi Areva and Italy's Mascalzone Latino, have almost no Kiwi ties. They had a combined record of 34-62 in the round-robins while the top three were 38-10. Ouch!

Now the challenger teams square off in four best-of-seven matches. They've been split into two fleets that will race separately -- an A fleet comprising the top four finishers and a B fleet of the bottom four, now that Mascalzone has been eliminated. Winners of the A fleet matches advance directly to the four-boat semifinals, while A fleet losers must race a second series against the B fleet winners. The B fleet losers are eliminated.

Alinghi, leader of the A fleet, has chosen to race No. 4 Prada in its best-of-seven pairing, leaving Oracle/BMW and OneWorld to square off in an intriguing match of the top U.S. boats. In the B fleet, Sweden will race the bottom-dwelling French while Stars & Stripes faces England. It would be the earliest departure ever for Cup icon Dennis Conner, should Stars & Stripes fail to dispatch the British.

Meantime, a band of loyal New Zealanders continues training daily in two black boats on the Hauraki Gulf, with the goal of again successfully defending against the top challenger in the best-of-nine Cup Match that starts Feb. 15. This time, it looks likely that Team New Zealand will see some familiar faces across the water on the survivor of the challenger series: More Kiwis. Wouldn't that make it the Kiwi Cup?

In fact, it won't. The America's Cup is not named for the U.S.A., despite the fact that U.S. boats held it nonstop for 132 years. It's named for the yacht America, which sailed across the Atlantic in 1851 to take on a fleet of British boats for the "100 Guineas Cup," as it was originally known. When America won, it became the America's Cup, and so it has remained, and probably always will.

But Kiwis, who have proved themselves the best sailors in the world, can crow and throw their little darts. They've earned the right.

Swiss yacht Alinghi, right, cruises during its match race against American boat Oracle during Louis Vuitton Cup qualifying races on the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland, New Zealand.