French fans geared up for a celebration today but had to put it off as fickle winds forced postponement of the crucial fourth America's Cup race between Team New Zealand and Swiss Alinghi.
The French were excited to see one of their countrymen in the Cup final for the first time as struggling New Zealand tapped backup helmsman Bertrand Pace to serve as tactician, replacing Cup rookie Hamish Pepper.
But after a 2 1/2-hour wait in unsteady northwest winds, the race was called off. With a lay day scheduled Friday, the two teams reconvene on the Hauraki Gulf to try again Saturday.
Pace, the diminutive, hard-driving skipper who has sailed in five Cup campaigns for the French but never made it to the final match, was brought on for his experience after TNZ skipper Dean Barker cited "confusion" in the afterguard during Tuesday's 23-second loss to Alinghi.
The defeat put the Kiwis two races from elimination as they fell to 0-3 in the best-of-nine final. Whether Pace can fit in and reverse the trend after spending two years as helmsman on the TNZ tuneup boat remains to be seen. His promotion to the racing crew means the Kiwis now have two non-New Zealanders in the afterguard, Pace and Australian wind strategist Adam Beashel.
Today's prospects for a race looked promising as breezes picked up from light to moderate, but they never settled enough in strength and direction for principal race officer Harold Bennett to start the contest.
Bennett's role as final arbiter on whether to race is controversial. As an employee and member of Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, the club Team New Zealand represents, he has a built-in conflict of interest in his role, and there is concern he might opt for conditions that favor the Kiwis. But Alinghi had no complaints with today's decision.
Breezes at the scheduled 1:15 p.m. start time hovered around five knots under cloudy skies, then increased as high as 15 knots over the next two hours as the teams sailed up and down the course. But they were shifting as much as 30 degrees, according to an Alinghi spokesman, making the course unfair.
Under regatta rules, no race may start after 3:30 p.m. without consent of both teams. At 3:20, Bennett asked both crews by radio whether they wanted to extend the deadline and wait for the breeze to settle. Alinghi didn't answer; Team New Zealand navigator Mike Drummond did, in the negative.
The decision rankled a few onlookers. Ian Walker, skipper of the British challenger GBR, said the wind looked adequate. "It's shifty but we've got breeze and the breeze always shifts, so get on with it," he said. Stuart Streuli, senior editor of the U.S. sailboat racing magazine Sailing World, said, "It seems steady enough to go racing, and there's definitely enough wind."
But Bennett never lowered the postponement flag.