It feels like spring here, blustery and cold. But just seven weeks into a long America's Cup season, two of the top U.S. syndicates are already facing elimination -- at each other's hands.
When Seattle-based OneWorld, which has a $75 million budget and the backing of tech billionaires Paul Allen and Craig McCaw, begins its best-of-seven series against Dennis Conner's New York-based Stars & Stripes, with its $40 million budget, one boat faces the daunting prospect of being home for the holidays.
"I have no interest in being home for Christmas," Stars & Stripes tactician Terry Hutchinson said bluntly. "I didn't spend a year of my life working on this to get eliminated early."
Kevin Hall, OneWorld's navigator, has even more to lose. He and his mates have been training two years, which he considers an edge. "No disrespect to Stars & Stripes, but we feel if we can't beat them now, we should go home. They're not on an obvious path to win the America's Cup. We are. We don't underestimate them, but we've spent a lot more time than they have and we're ready."
Strong words, strong incentives.
Cup followers were stunned early this week when OneWorld, which won the right to select its opponent for this knockout round by compiling a 13-3 record in October trials, picked Stars & Stripes rather than Sweden's Victory or Italy's Prada. (The two European entries will race separately for the other semifinal berth.)
Winners of the two repechage matches advance to December semifinals along with fleet leader Alinghi of Switzerland and second-place Oracle/BMW, billionaire Larry Ellison's San Francisco entry.
OneWorld is still licking its wounds after a 4-0 quarterfinal drubbing by Oracle/BMW, while Stars & Stripes is fresh off a convincing, 4-1 trouncing of Great Britain. Conner's veteran team is in a new boat and on a roll. Why choose them?
"In the end, it wasn't a unanimous decision because there were arguments either way," waffled OneWorld executive director Bob Ratliffe, who said it eventually came down to concern that Stars & Stripes was getting stronger, would have to be dealt with eventually and should be dispatched as early as possible.
The upshot is a high-profile, do-or-die match between two wildly different teams, both flying U.S. ensigns. Dark blue Stars & Stripes is an old-mold, one-nationality team bearing a storied name. Its namesake won the Cup in Australia in 1987 and defended it successfully in 1988, then lost in 1995. Its figurehead is Conner, the most famous Cup skipper, now aged 60 and the syndicate chief; its sponsor is the New York Yacht Club, holder of the Cup for 132 years. At $40 million, its budget is just over half of OneWorld's.
Pale blue OneWorld is the thoroughly modern, multinational brainchild of McCaw, a West Coast communications wizard, who brought in Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, to share costs. Japanese, Australians, English, New Zealanders and Americans are on the crew. The sponsor is Seattle Yacht Club, which has never challenged for the Cup before.
OneWorld was 8-0 in the first round-robin and 5-3 in the second to finish with the second-best-record in the nine-boat field. Stars & Stripes struggled, winning only two of eight races in the second session to wind up seventh.
But Conner's team, following form, had an ace up its sleeve. It switched to a new boat for the quarterfinals, USA 77, which sank in training off California in July but was raised and rebuilt with a new bow section. With Newport, R.I., helmsman Ken Read at the wheel, Hutchinson calling tactics and the most experienced crew in the regatta trimming sails, the new S & S dominated an English team it had struggled to stay up with in early rounds.
Now comes a sterner test. OneWorld boasts the youngest helmsman in the regatta, 23-year-old Australian James Spithill, who acquitted himself well in the early going. He takes orders from tactician Peter Gilmour, another Australian who is listed as skipper and whose Cup credentials date from 1987. Gilmour announced Friday OneWorld will switch back to USA 67, the boat that did well in early rounds, for the repechage rather than USA 65, which flopped in the quarterfinals.
Still, a 23-year-old steering? "He has a lot of talent and maturity beyond his years," said Hall, an American in his second Cup campaign, "both to think ahead and to manage his own energy level. He has a knack not to make big mistakes, not to overextend himself on the risk side, and for a young person that's not a common characteristic."
Spithill also is notoriously aggressive in prestarts, which OneWorld hopes will fluster Read, the Stars & Stripes skipper who incurred several prestart penalties in the early rounds.
An advantage off the start line can decide a Cup match, as the boat ahead drives the boat behind farther back using its wind shadow. In more than 90 percent of Cup matches, the boat that reaches the first turning mark ahead goes on to win.
"Everyone is going to be watching what happens up that first leg," said Hutchinson, who took exception to Hall's assertion that Stars & Stripes was "not on an obvious path to win the Cup."
"Our guys pulled an all-nighter last night, working on the boat," he said in midweek last week, "and they'll pull another tonight. If OneWorld thinks we're not in it to win, they have another think coming. I know I wouldn't have picked us to race against, and when we send them home, the first question to Peter Gilmour should be, 'Are you still happy you picked Stars & Stripes?' "