Swiss Crew Commands America’s Cup Lead
AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) _ With every victory, New Zealand-born skipper Russell Coutts and his Kiwi-heavy crew aboard Alinghi of Switzerland prove they’re among the best in America’s Cup history.
And they’re getting closer to taking the oldest trophy in international sports back to Europe for the first time in 152 years.
The Swiss boat has a 3-0 lead over two-time defending champion Team New Zealand in the best-of-nine series, with Race 4 scheduled for Thursday.
In the two races they’ve finished, the Kiwis have lost by 7 and 23 seconds _ close margins after sailing for 18.5 nautical miles. But they need a miracle against Coutts and his all-star crew.
Coutts, 40, has never lost a race in the America’s Cup match, running his record to 12 straight wins over three regattas and for two countries. Now the Kiwis have to beat their former skipper five times in six races.
``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. We don’t feel like we’re sailing that badly. We’ve made two mistakes and it’s two mistakes too many that’s cost us.″
In the opening race, NZL-82 practically fell apart the Kiwis had to withdraw, handing the win to the Swiss. Barker let Coutts pass him on the last leg of Race 2, then watched helplessly as Alinghi took the right side of the course in Race 3 and immediately make a big gain thanks to a wind shift.
The two boats appear to be evenly matched, despite all the hype about Team New Zealand’s radical hull appendage, or ``hula.″ The Kiwis are simply being outsmarted by Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth.
``I think Russell’s dominance of the sport is becoming more and more clear every day,″ said Josh Belsky of Hood River, Ore., one of two Americans on Alinghi’s crew.
Coutts and Butterworth _ longtime golfing buddies as well as sailing partners _ left Team New Zealand in a dispute over how the syndicate would be run after it successfully defended the America’s Cup in 2000. They took with them top sail trimmers Simon Daubney and Warwick Fleury, bowman Dean Phipps and Murray Jones, an expert at picking wind shifts. Collectively, they’ve been nicknamed the ``Kiwi Swiss.″
``I think they’re the best sailors in the world,″ said Swiss biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, who spent millions on Kiwi talent in his attempt to bring the America’s Cup to his landlocked country. ``It’s obviously huge. These guys are very good.″
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.
Bertarelli, the navigator on the 16-man crew, sees firsthand what a good investment he made.
``Russell is a very smart man. He knows that if he didn’t have his crew, he wouldn’t be where he is,″ Bertarelli said. ``I think what you see on the water is a system at work. It’s not only one man. Obviously when it comes to the deciding moment, he’s a genius. He just has that extra bit that makes him different from the others and allows him to win.″
Coutts shrugged when asked about his America’s Cup winning streak.
``Brad and Warwick and Simon and Dean Phipps have actually had one more win than me in a row,″ he said.
Coutts led Team New Zealand’s five-race rout of Dennis Conner off San Diego in 1995. After staking Team New Zealand to a 4-0 lead in 2000 against Italy’s Prada Challenge, Coutts handed the wheel to Barker and watched from a chase boat as the understudy delivered the clinching win.
With Coutts, ``It’s just a sixth sense and an instinctual style of sailing that he has that is infectious to everybody else,″ Belsky said.
Belsky gives Butterworth equal credit for Alinghi’s success.
``Russell really, really, 100 percent trusts Brad to be his eyes and ears of everything that’s happening around, so he can concentrate on steering the boat and making it go fast,″ Belsky said.
With every Alinghi win, there are more high-fives on the boat and smiles come easier. After Race 3, Butterworth pumped his fist.
``We’re not backing off here, and now’s the time for us to step up a gear, and hopefully we can,″ Butterworth said.