Swiss sail to 3-0 lead over Kiwis

Posted: Tuesday, February 18, 2003

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) -- Nothing but stern.

That's what Alinghi of Switzerland showed beleaguered Team New Zealand all the way around the course, and the America's Cup is that much closer to going to Europe for the first time in 152 years.

New Zealand-born skipper Russell Coutts sailed another masterful race, steering the whimsically named Alinghi to a 23-second win Tuesday to give the Swiss a 3-0 lead in the best-of-nine series.

Two more wins by Alinghi and the oldest trophy in international sports will belong to a landlocked country for the first time. More specifically, it would go to La Society Notice de Geneva, a yacht club on the shores of Lake Geneva.

''Race three, it puts you over the halfway point,'' said Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth, another Kiwi. ''It's a big deal.''

In 1851, the yacht America won what was then called the 100 Guinea Cup by beating a fleet of British schooners around the Isle of Wight. The silver trophy hasn't been in European hands since.

On a gray day on the tricky Hauraki Gulf -- matching the mood of this island nation -- 29-year-old skipper Dean Barker and two-time defending champion Team New Zealand tried vainly to keep up with the 40-year-old Coutts and his Kiwi-heavy crew. Alinghi picked the right side of the course at the start, gained immediately from a wind shift and then kept its black-and-red boat ahead of the Kiwi black boat the rest of the way around the six-leg, 18.5-nautical mile course.

The Kiwis again made a bad call, picking the left side of the course while Alinghi took the right. Barker admitted to some ''confusion'' on the black boat in the minutes before the start.

''We just didn't get the decision right off the start line and that put us in a catch-up situation the rest of the day,'' Barker said.

Biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, who paid millions to lure Coutts and his top mates away from Team New Zealand in 2000, couldn't be happier with his investment.

''I think they're the best sailors in the world,'' Bertarelli said over the din of supporters clanging cowbells at the Alinghi compound. ''They haven't lost an America's Cup regatta in three editions. I think they're writing history. Today Russell goes 12 wins without a loss, which is absolutely unbelievable.

''It's obviously huge,'' he said. ''These guys are very good.''

The Kiwis need a miracle to keep the America's Cup at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron overlooking the green waters of Waitemata Harbor. Coutts has never been beaten in the America's Cup match, and now Team New Zealand must defeat its former skipper five times in six races. Race 4 is scheduled for Thursday.

''I don't think it's as bad as what people think,'' Barker said. ''Sure we're in a very, very tough position now; 3-0 down is not a nice place to be. But we certainly haven't given up.''

Coutts extended his record to 12 straight victories in the America's Cup match, a streak spanning three regattas and two countries.

Two defenders have rallied from 0-2 deficits to win the America's Cup, but no team has been able to come back from three down. The America's Cup has been best-of-nine since 1995, when Coutts and Team New Zealand embarrassed Dennis Conner in a five-race sweep off San Diego.

Five years later, Team New Zealand routed Italy's Prada Challenge in five races. Coutts handed the wheel to Barker for the clinching fifth race in 2000, then signed with Alinghi two months later, taking Butterworth and several top crewmen with him.

Coutts downplayed his growing record, pointing out that Butterworth and the other ''Kiwi Swiss'' have one more win than he does in the America's Cup match.

''We've just got to sail well for two more races,'' Coutts said.

The wind was about 12 knots at the start from the north-northwest. Alinghi wanted the favored right side of the course and got it thanks to entering the box on favored starboard tack for the prestart maneuvers. The Swiss gained almost immediately from a 20-degree wind shift to the right and led by six lengths less than halfway up the 3.25-nautical mile windward leg.

Coutts said the weather team called the boat just before the start to say that it changed its mind and thought the right side of the course was the best.

''That was a big call,'' Coutts said.

The call came in with seven minutes to go before the prestart. At six minutes to go, the crew throws the radios overboard in a watertight container because no communication is allowed from outside sources after the five-minute gun.



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