Team New Zealand trained three years to defend the America's Cup, brought the newest, most radical boat and the high hopes of 3.9 million countrymen to the starting line today, but lasted just 20 minutes in the first race.
Before thousands of spectator boats and a global TV audience, the black-clad home team came unraveled in 23 knots of wind and whitecapped seas -- just the conditions everyone expected the Kiwis to excel in. Within minutes of the start TNZ looked on the verge of sinking and soon after retired with heavy damage to two sails and the boom, giving Swiss challenger Alinghi a 1-0 lead in the best-of-nine match for yachting's top prize.
Roaring off the start line, TNZ looked more than competitive, sweeping to a half-boat length lead after a perfectly timed start in blustery winds. Kiwi onlookers had a brief chance to cheer before the wheels came off for the sleek black boat and its young, inexperienced skipper and crew.
First the sharply heeled TNZ looked ready to sink as seawater poured over the gunwales in big wind and wave, with a crewman bailing furiously with a blue plastic bucket. "It's the America's Cup," marveled British Cup skipper Ian Walker, watching from a spectator craft, "and it looks like the most important piece of equipment is a $2 plastic pail."
Next the end of TNZ's superlight tubular boom snapped under the load of the big mainsail, leaving the back end of the sail flapping. The Kiwis eased away from the wind and looked haplessly at a tangle of ropes and carbon fiber shards before deciding to carry on.
When they turned back upwind to try to stay in contact with Alinghi, which was streaking away, the headsail tore from its track and began flapping wildly. The Kiwi crew hauled it down and tried to mount a new headsail but that too blew loose.
They turned downwind in disgrace and called Principal Race Officer Harold Bennett to announce retirement from the race.
TNZ syndicate chief Tom Schnackenberg said the problem with water coming aboard is "something we've lived with before. The boats are wet. We'll probably make a bigger effort to get rid of it next time. Once the wind gets blowing this hard, racing can turn into a bit of a demolition derby. It's a strong resolute group. With a good night's sleep they'll be up and ready to go again."
Alinghi, with former TNZ skipper Russell Coutts at the helm in his new role as challenger, eased off the throttle and prepared to circle the 181/2-mile course alone to the finish in the graphite and red Swiss boat, as required by rule to pick up the point.
Yachties have a name for what happened to the Kiwis. It's known as a yard sale -- with used-up bits and pieces scattered everywhere. It happens all the time when the wind pipes up in club racing, but it's not supposed to happen at the America's Cup.
The shocking defeat was ironic. Challengers have been criticized since racing began in October for refusing to run races in winds more than 19 knots. Today's race never would have started in the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger series that Alinghi won to get to the Cup. Most observers reckoned TNZ, which had no restrictions in its preparations, would have the edge.
But today it was Alinghi that was thoroughly prepared, and TNZ's crew who hung their heads disconsolately as they accepted a tow home to make repairs and get ready for Sunday, when breezes are expected to be lighter.
Right in the midst of the brooding crew sat skipper Dean Barker, the 29-year-old understudy who took over after Coutts quit the team three years ago.
The quick and stunning end came after an uplifting start to the day as Team New Zealand left Viaduct Harbor amid a chorus of boat horns and cheers and flag-waving fans. The spectator fleet on a bright day in Hauraki Gulf looked bigger than any ever seen since Cup racing started here with the 2000 defense.