Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Team New Zealand trained three years to defend the America's Cup, built a new boat with a radical underwater appendage and carried the hopes of 3.9 million countrymen to the start line today. But the glory lasted just 20 minutes.
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 in which everyone expected the Kiwis to thrive. Shortly after the start TNZ looked on the verge of sinking and soon after retired with 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.
TNZ looked more than competitive off the start line, shooting to a half-boat-length lead after a perfectly timed start. Kiwi onlookers had a chance to cheer before the wheels came off for the black boat and its inexperienced skipper and crew.
First the sharply heeled TNZ grew heavy as seawater poured over the gunwales in waves, with a crewman up to his knees in water bailing furiously with a bucket. "It's the America's Cup," said 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, leaving the back end of the sail flapping loose. The Kiwis eased away from the wind and looked for a way to repair the tangle of ropes and carbon fiber shards before deciding to carry on wounded.
But when they turned back upwind to chase Alinghi, streaking away, the headsail blew out of its track. The crew hauled it down and tried to mount a new one but that too blew out and racing was over for the traumatized team.
They turned downwind and advised Race Officer Harold Bennett they'd retired from racing.
Alinghi, with former TNZ skipper Russell Coutts at the helm in his new role as challenger, eased off the throttle and circled the 18 1/2-mile course without incident in the graphite and red Swiss boat to take the point.
What happened? Shattered Kiwi skipper Dean Barker reflected afterward that "we got a couple of waves over during the prestart; then when we sailed it was coming in over the leeward side. Typically when one thing goes wrong, the loads go up" and other problems follow.
The result was a shocker. Challengers have been criticized since racing began in October for refusing to start in winds over 19 knots. Today's race never would have happened in the challenger series Alinghi won to advance to the Cup. Most observers reckoned TNZ, with no restrictions in its preparations, would have an edge as a result.
But it was Alinghi that looked prepared and TNZ's crew who hung their heads disconsolately on the tow back to the base, where a crew was waiting to make repairs for Sunday, when lighter breezes are forecast.
In the midst of the brooding crew, Barker, the 29-year-old understudy who took over after Coutts quit the team three years ago, sat with his cap pulled over his face.
The end came quickly after an uplifting start to the day as Team New Zealand left Viaduct Harbor amid a chorus of boat horns and cheers from thousands of flag-waving fans. The spectator fleet on a bright Saturday looked bigger than any since Cup races started here in 2000.
Barker blamed the many spectators in part for his woes. "With strong winds and the spectator chop, it just got worse and worse," he said of the problems with water in the boat.