-- The America's Cup is awash in billionaires with big egos and even bigger motor yachts, tossing away piles of money in pursuit of a glittering prize for which only one of them will get to compete.

With their millions they have lured away many of New Zealand's best sailing minds and talents in the quest for the Cup, but they're all still chasing one Kiwi who didn't budge and whose mind and talents may well make up for all those lost.

That would be Tom Schnackenberg, or Schnack, as he is universally known. The bald, sprite-like, wiry, self-effacing 57-year-old sailing wizard played a key role in Team New Zealand's 1995 and 2000 Cup victories and is back for 2003, running an even bigger chunk of the show.

It is a measure of Schnackenberg's penchant for modesty that while the other Cup bigwigs sashay around in their fast cars and monstrous boats, he pedals to work every day on a bicycle. As syndicate chief, design coordinator and navigator on TNZ's racing team, he could certainly argue that his time is important enough to merit a car, maybe even a driver. But that's just not Schnack.

Not that the eight-mile bike ride into town along the Hauraki Gulf from Kohimarama is perfect. "I still haven't figured out what to do about sweating," he said, the wheels of his fertile mind spinning in search of a solution. "I don't get hot until I get off, but about 10 minutes after I get in here, I'm drenched and the B.O. can be a problem," he said ruefully.

Schnackenberg has had plenty else to sweat about but it seems to have perturbed him not a bit. TNZ's lead designer, Laurie Davidson, left after the 2000 Cup to join Craig McCaw's OneWorld Challenge in Seattle, taking with him countless secrets and a half-dozen crew. Skipper Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth went off to Switzerland to join billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli's high-flying Alinghi Challenge, taking another contingent of top TNZ crewmen.

Various design and administrative people scattered to other challenging syndicates, where budgets that double or even triple what the Kiwis can afford are the rule.

Team New Zealand lost a charismatic leader of incalculable proportions when Sir Peter Blake, who organized the Kiwis' last two Cup efforts, left to devote himself to global environmental causes, then was murdered by pirates in the Amazon. Now, even his counsel can no longer be sought.

Yet somehow, if you wander the docks at the Viaduct Basin here and ask who is the favorite for the upcoming Cup match in February, the majority of cognoscenti will reply without hesitation, "Team New Zealand."

Put the blame on Schnack. When controversy erupted last week over the discovery of a slick trick to outsmart Cup boat design rules by attaching an appendage to the stern of the Kiwi race boat, making it behave as if it's longer in the water than it actually is, and thus significantly faster, Schnackenberg was considered the brains behind it.

Of course, he took no credit. "Even just talking about it is beyond what we want to do," he said with a shudder. "We want it to be a surprise on January 7," when all remaining competitors unveil their hulls, all of which have been hidden under security skirts since Day 1.

Innovations like the so-called "Kiwi clip-on," the appendage the remaining challengers are all urgently trying to copy, are Schnackenberg's stock in trade. A scientist by nature, the native New Zealander came within a hair of earning his doctorate as a nuclear physicist but dropped out when he discovered sailing.

He was part of the Australia II team that won the Cup in 1983 with the famous winged keel. He helped work up an Aussie boat with two rudders for the 1992 Cup that proved a disaster. And he was a vital cog on the crew and in the design team that came up with the black boats that clobbered all comers in the last two Cups, losing just one race in five years.

For all his sailing credentials, Schnackenberg still looks more like a physicist than a sailor. He shaved off a monstrous, signature handlebar mustache a few years ago on a bet and has never grown it back, leaving few distinguishing physical characteristics other than a small, wiry frame and a few nervous tics around the eyes, betraying the mental gymnastics that seem always in process.

How did he deal with the loss of all those big players? "We didn't really lose Laurie [Davidson], because we all know how he thought and we just say, 'Well, here's what Laurie would say' if an issue comes up. And the same is true of Peter [Blake]. When something comes up where he'd have input, we just say, 'What would Peter say?' It's as if they're still here."

And how does a 140-pound 57-year-old survive at sea among the giant twenty-something winch-grinders who whip Cup boats around the course? "I actually call my job 'navi-grinder,' because I spend as much time helping out on the handles as I do looking at the computer," says Schnackenberg, who keeps fit. "It's simple stuff -- the more people grinding, the faster you get the sails in."

But it has costs. "I'm spending more time on stretching and massage therapy than on physical training these days, just to keep the joints going."

The loss of all those veteran TNZ sailors wasn't without an upside. "There's a fabulous sense of youthful enthusiasm on the boat now" under rookie helmsman Dean Barker, said Schnackenberg. "It's more like it was back in '95, when the sailing team had a strong voice in boat design. The young guys feel it's their boat, their design. That feeling has been reborn."

Indeed, on Team New Zealand almost everyone gets to contribute in multiple ways. Of the two lead designers, Mike Drummond is on the racing team and Clay Oliver, a former U.S. Naval Academy naval architect, sails on the tuneup boat. That fits with Schnackenberg's philosophy of horizontal integration: If anyone in TNZ has an idea to make the boat faster, even the fellow who sweeps the floors, Schnack is all ears.

"When we're towing the boats out" to train on the Hauraki Gulf, "everybody gets to ask everybody else anything that's on their minds."

The obvious problem Team New Zealand faces now is that by not racing any of its competitors until it faces the top one when the Cup match arrives in February, the team has no real way of judging how it stands. How does Schnackenberg handle the uncertainty?

"Well," he says, mental wheels spinning again behind those eyes, "it's pretty much impossible to know. You see the challengers race and get a feeling for their relative performance against each other. You try to understand the design from what you can see above the water.

"But you certainly can't measure performance in any objective way. The difference between the fastest and slowest boats out there is less than one percent. In a 11/2-hour race, that's 54 seconds, and most of the races are closer than that. What we're really looking for is an advantage of about one-third of one percent."

And have the Kiwis got it?

"It's going to be a first-rate match," said Schnackenberg with a comfortable smile. "The challengers are very good boats, very well sailed. We can't look across the way and say, 'Gee, they're all wrong.' They all look good. There's nothing silly out there."

"There's a fabulous sense

of youthful enthusiasm on

the boat now," says Tom Schnackenberg, of TNZ racing team.