Time of the essence in America's Cup

Posted: Tuesday, September 17, 2002

AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- A single phrase, repeated almost as a mantra, resounds daily with varied emphasis and in several different languages from the America's Cup team compounds:

''There's never enough time.''

Only two full weeks remain before racing begins in the challenger series of the 31st America's Cup regatta. Some campaigns have been preparing for the Oct. 1 start for three years.

Nine syndicates from six countries -- including three from the United States -- will compete over almost six months for the right to challenge New Zealand for sailing's most famous trophy.

The American teams, along with two from Italy and one each from France, Switzerland, Sweden and Britain, are attempting to take full advantage of the handful of training days remaining.

The days are long for the sailors, the administrators and the technical staff that make up each syndicate. Most are up before the sun. Extended days are spent in practice on the Hauraki Gulf, and sailmakers, boat-builders and others work long into the southern hemisphere's spring evenings.

Italian syndicate Prada will be challenging for the Cup for the second time. They emerged from a series among 11 challengers to vie for the Cup with Team New Zealand in 2000 but were beaten in five consecutive races in the match itself.

Prada's preparation for the 2002-2003 Cup began almost as soon as the last Cup ended, and they have maintained a presence in Auckland from their base at the foot of Syndicate Row over the past three years.

At first, only a handful of staff maintained the base and governed Prada's preparation for another Cup bid. But for months Prada has had a full team on hand, and their days have been taken up in practice-match racing, testing and preparing the syndicate's two new boats.

Prada was considered the best-financed challenger in 2000, and much was made of its extravagant budget, largely furnished by Milan's Prada fashion house. The last three years have seen a huge rise in funding, and Prada's resources are now moderate compared to those of Switzerland's Alinghi challenge or the Oracle syndicate of software billionaire Larry Ellison.

The requirements of the crew have not changed.

Alarms ring each morning around 6 a.m. in the five-star downtown hotel where the Prada crew is staying. Weary crews stumble from their beds, and a few of them get in a quick snack, or a glance at the weather, before hurrying to the team gymnasium.

Daily gym work is a part of every team's routine, even for many of the syndicates' non-sailing members. The Prada team works out under the observation of conditioning coach Vernon Neville, who puts them through programs designed to increase their speed, strength and balance.

Breakfast is eaten around 8 a.m. and is one of the most important events of the day. High on carbohydrates, the first meal of the day is designed to help the team through more than seven hours of sailing.

A briefing is held around 9:15 a.m. daily, when skipper Francesco de Angelis outlines the day's schedule, announces the crew list and assigns tasks.

By 9:30, the Prada race yachts are lowered carefully from their cradles into the waters of Auckland's Viaduct Basin. In those moments, as the boats are lowered or raised again in the evenings, the crane operators have responsibility for millions of dollars of high technology.

Tow lines are joined and the team tender, a powerful motor boat, begins to tow the yachts to sea, through the narrow neck of the Viaduct Basin, onto the shallow Waitemata Harbor and into the Hauraki Gulf.

By 10:30, tow lines have been dropped and the crew is ready to begin the day's program, sailing in the shadow of the extinct volcano Rangitoto.

Far from being glamorous, the work at sea is often repetitive and mundane. Maneuvers are repeated until they can be executed flawlessly. Everything is geared toward wringing every fraction of a knot from the boats -- each more than 80 feet long and with masts towering 130 feet.

A team of meteorologists provides detailed daily weather reports, and training takes place rain or shine, in calm weather or rough, unless winds reach a speed that might endanger the crews' safety.

Boats race against each other to allow comparison of sails, masts and rigging, and to sharpen match racing skills. Around 4:30 the towline is taken up again, sails are lowered, rigging squared away and the boats head for home.

On their return, crewmen meet again in a second daily briefing in which the day's events are analyzed. Still photographs and videotapes, computer data and the crews' impressions are discussed.

The day isn't over yet. While some will examine small details of the day's performance, many crewmen return to the gym for a second workout.

Dinner is a more social occasion. Chefs produce a meal heavy on seasonal commodities -- seafood, fruits and vegetables. Wine is served, and an ice cream bar is provided. Family members and friends are welcomed.

Lights out is 10 p.m.

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