FREMANTLE, Australia (AP) _ So the New Zealanders had the gall, guile or smarts to build a fiberglass yacht for the America's Cup races. So what?

To hear the comments in some quarters, you'd think someone let a skunk loose in church.

Ever since Noah and the ark, man has built boats with the nearest material to hand - wood.

Jason chased after the Golden Fleece in a wooden galley. Vikings raped, pillaged and burned - and traded - in lovely wooden long boats. Columbus bumped into the new world on his way to China in a wooden caravel.

When George Steers thought up the design for the schooner America in the first cup race in 1851, he thought wood.

Not until the American Civil War did anyone think an iron ship might float. The result was the classic battle between the Union's Monitor, all iron, and the Confederacy's Merrimac, iron outside over a wooden hull.

America's Cup designers got the word and for years built their massive yachts in a combination of increasingly exotic alloys.

But when Cup racing began in 12-meter yachts in 1958, wood was used by one and all, right up to the two-time defender Intrepid. Intrepid was deemed a breakthrough in 1967 for her hull design, not her construction.

Her modification in 1970 left her still a winner but possibly slower. The trouble was, however, that changing the hull of a wooden boat was laborious and costly.

So the New York Yacht Club, which then held the Cup, decided to permit aluminum hulls. Aluminum could be fabricated faster, and if the boat proved a clunker, sawed up and rebuilt to new lines.

Courageous was the first aluminum cup winner, taking the trophy in 1974 and repeating in 1977.

Courageous' aluminum hull proved the metal's versatility. Over the years, she's had more body tucks than an aging Hollywood star.

Most yachts today, however, are built of fiberglass, a plastic derived from petroleum. This has been true for a quarter-century. Fiberglass boats can be turned out of molds like cookies.

Wood impregnated with resins and epoxies may ultimately be the way to go when the oil wells start running dry. It already makes a light, strong and rot-free boat.

In their eternal quest for speed, however, America's Cup designers have been looking into fiberglass.

''Our engineers studied fiberglass for two years,'' said Bill Packer, manager of the New York Yacht Club's America II syndicate. ''We couldn't make it light enough and keep the strength.''

America II's crew has gone home for Christmas - and for good. New Zealand, the world's first fiberglass 12-meter, is still racing, has a gaudy 33-1 record and is a reasonable bet to take the Cup to Auckland.

''The fact we couldn't make fiberglass work doesn't mean there can't have been a breakthrough,'' Packer said.

''New Zealand has been building in glass since the early 1950s,'' Trevor Geldard, an Auckland fiberglass producer, said. ''We pioneered sheating wood with plastic.

''But we couldn't give fiberglass dinghies away. If your father used red lead paint and linseed oil on a wooden hull, you did. But labor costs changed a lot of minds. There's an advantage in not knowing something can't be done.

''People said you had to have 20 years on the learning curve in Cup design. But we thought this might be our last chance for the Cup in this part of the world. It could be an advantage to start fresh. Our isolation has made us more self-reliant.

''We had no assurance we could do it, but believed it could be done. We made hundreds of tests and spent thousands of hours with inspectors from Lloyd's Registry.''

Lloyd's, like the American Bureau of Shipping, sets worldwide standards for shipbuilding.

Geldard said the Kiwi's technology, homegrown by necessity, did what the rest of the world said could not be done. They built a fiberglass 12 that Lloyd's said met its specs when built - and met them again Monday when Lloyd's conducted another inspection and said New Zealand was a legal Cup yacht.

That's what her designers - Ron Holland, Bruce Farr and Laurie Davidson - have said from the start.

Dennis Conner, helmsman of Stars & Stripes from San Diego, had implied that New Zealand was skirting the rules. His aluminum yacht is in the four-boat semifinals along with New Zealand and a pair of aluminum-hulled yachts, French Kiss and San Francisco's USA.

Conner said he was ''100 percent happy'' after all four boats survived nautical saliva tests by measurers and surveyors on Monday and were certified to race against each other starting Dec. 28.

Michael Fay, New Zealand's syndicate head, even reluctantly agreed to have his yacht's hull drilled to settle the dispute ''once and for all.''

''As soon as somebody has a breakthrough,'' Fay said, ''there seems to be a habit for issues of legality to surface.''

Perth's Alan Bond turned the world upside down in winning the Cup in 1983 with a yacht featuring a winged keel. Now every 12 has them. Heart of America, a non-qualifier from Chicago, even had wings on its wings.

''The number of people who want to buy boats from me indicates there will be more fiberglass 12s,'' Fay said.

The investment banker from a far, far corner of the world had the look of a man who'd invented a better mousetrap.

End Adv for Tues PMs