In nature, in war and in the America's Cup, adaptability is the key to survival.

As the high-flying Cup challenger from Switzerland, Alinghi, soars toward next month's best-of-nine match against Team New Zealand for yachting's top prize, the question for many is whether skipper Russell Coutts can rustle up the guile to overcome a technological disadvantage.

At 40, Coutts is at the top of his game, a two-time Cup winner and an Olympic gold medalist with the precise mind of an engineer and the sensitive touch of an artist on the helm. Is that enough to get past the Kiwis' vaunted breakthrough, the so-called hula hull with its extra waterline length, which should translate into extra speed?

If anyone can do it, Coutts can. In an intriguing challengers' final against San Francisco's Oracle/BMW, the former Kiwi skipper and his wily mates on Alinghi showed they are not so set in their ways they can't learn new tricks and apply them with deadly force.

After losing the first two races of the best-of-nine series badly, Oracle and its veteran skipper, Chris Dickson, mounted a rally when the weather softened, barely losing the third race on a penalty call, walloping Alinghi in the fourth race and leading a good part of the fifth. Alinghi clinched the series, 5-1, with a win on Sunday.

Dickson and crew were playing to their strengths -- downwind speed and excellent performance in lighter breezes -- until the advantages vanished like smoke. Conditions seemed perfect for Oracle to put the squeeze on Alinghi. What stopped the upset-in-the-making?

"I think Oracle helped us a little bit to learn how to work better and how to handle the situations better," said strategist Jochen Schuemann, a three-time Olympic gold medalist from Germany. "They did some smart sailing the way they sail their boat downwind and that was a gain often on us, so I think we learned from that and we do it more or less the same way now."

Pitman Josh Belsky, one of two Americans on Alinghi and a veteran of four Cup campaigns, said it was all about adapting. "We had an idea how to sail our boat based on training sessions with our other boat. But what worked against SUI 74 didn't turn out to work against Oracle, so we had to figure out a new way, and Oracle showed it to us."

Of course, change can work for you, as it did for Alinghi, or it can backfire. Oracle may have been a victim of too much change. The black boat that started this regatta in October is so different from the one that showed up for challenger finals, the crew had to learn to sail it all over again. "About the only thing the same on our boat is the number on the sails," Dickson said before the finals.

By design, the entry of billionaire software guru Larry Ellison was set up to evolve as the season wore on from a stiff, heavy-air campaigner in the early going when strong winds predominate here to a light-air flyer later, when gentler breezes arrive on the Hauraki Gulf.

The changes went on as planned but apparently no one bothered to factor in the time it would take for skipper and crew to learn how to sail in the new modes. Frequently in the finals, Oracle team members complained they were still learning to efficiently sail with new, larger sails and a lighter ballast arrangement under water.

Add to that an unsettled situation at the controls, with Dickson and helmsman Peter Holmberg battling for helm time and the volatile boss, Ellison, sometimes observing from onboard in the 17th man position and sometimes from his power yacht, Katana, and you end up with a situation so unstable it threatens to unravel at the first sign of trouble. Which it did. Down went Oracle with the crew still working out how to trim the sails

Belsky reckons Alinghi was lucky to have a stable platform to work with from the outset. "We got a good boat at the beginning that was relatively strong in all conditions, so we could work out ways to improve performance without changing too much," he said.

Next comes a sterner test. Team New Zealand's unique, horizontal underwater appendage, the so-called "Kiwi clip-on" or "hula hull," extends working waterline length of the boat so theoretically, top speed is enhanced. Even the clever Coutts, working with his longtime tactician Brad Butterworth and the brilliant strategist Schuemann, can't be expected to outrun a quicker boat, can he?

Asked what he thought of the Kiwis' chances in the Cup match Feb. 15, Bill Endean, commodore of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, official keeper of the Cup, said, "We have a longer boat, and what sailboat racer wouldn't like that?"

But there may be downsides to the hula, which produces more drag in the water and adds a bit of extra weight. In light air, knowledgeable observers think it could be a hindrance.

Alinghi toyed with the notion of attaching a hula appendage of its own two weeks ago but the plan now seems abandoned for lack of time to make it work. The Swiss likely will work instead on small, incremental improvements to their race package, as they have all season. They have the most aerodynamic sails and rigging in the fleet, by most accounts.

Alinghi otherwise looks conventional compared to Team New Zealand's radical hula hull and it may well be a 5-0 Kiwi blowout when the two teams line up in a breeze.

But if there are downsides to the hula hull, no one in sailing is better suited to ferret out and exploit them than the cagey Coutts, the former Kiwi skipper who has lost just five races in Cup competition in the last 10 years.

Alinghi skipper Russell Coutts, a two-time Cup winner, must count on his adaptability.