AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) _ Billy Bates works in the sewer with water up to his shins and sweat pouring from his superbly conditioned body.

He loves it.

The cramped area below deck on America's Cup yachts is called the sewer. That's Bates' domain on AmericaOne, which can reach the Cup finals against New Zealand by beating Prada of Italy in the best-of-9 challenger finals, tied 3-3 going into Thursday's race

Bates packs sails after they come down so they're ready to be hoisted the next time they're needed. The job is critical to the boat's success, if not nearly as glamorous as the skipper's role.

``It's out of sight, out of mind. Most people think it's the worst job,'' Bates said. ``I enjoy how hard it is and I really do enjoy trying to be the best at what you do, regardless of what the job is.''

Even if it means going down with the boat.

Bates and a crewmate were in the sewer in 1995, his third Cup campaign, when oneAustralia broke up. They heard yelling on deck and rushed up through the hatch.

``I scrambled for my life,'' Bates said. ``We paddled on our backs. The hardest part was treading water while we waited to be picked up by the chase boat. As we swam away, it went down within 30 seconds and we just watched it disappear.''

The 36-year-old native of Sydney, Australia, moved to San Diego where he had met his future wife during the 1995 Cup campaign there. Now he handles several roles for an American team seeking sailing's top prize.

Bates comes up for air for at least half the race to work as mastman. The 6-foot, 188-pound muscular marvel also leads AmericaOne's grueling training program _ running hills, swimming, boxing, weight work _ that prepares crew members for rough seas and heavy wind.

``The program he put together is amazing,'' AmericaOne bowman Greg Prussia said. ``Guys on our team who were football players have lost 45 pounds. Every single person on the team has probably lost at least 10 pounds.''

Crew members also watch what they eat so they can be in top condition.

``No hot dogs,'' Bates said. ``We actually don't have an America's Cup menu that we follow, but we have a balanced diet and we are very aware of our carbo loading.''

All that exercise and eating have one goal, to win, Bates said. That would be tougher if he weren't so skillful.

The 18 1/2-mile race has three legs going into the wind and three with the wind coming from behind. His most important task is handling spinnakers _ pulling the 5,000-square-foot nylon sail through the hatch after a downwind leg, repacking it and feeding it back up for the next downwind run.

He's been tested in four races during this series when spinnakers ripped or broke and he had to hurry to get a replacement.

``He's just a perfectionist,'' Prussia said. ``It's Billy's house down there. It's unbelieveable, all the little gadgets he's got down there to make his job easier. It's one of the best spinnaker-packing systems we've ever seen.''

Bates has company in his dungeon-like surroundings.

On the inside of the hull is a transfer, like those applied to surfboards, of a woman called Violet. She wasn't well known until a sewer-cam was added for television.

``That's our good luck charm. It was never going to be in public view, then the sewer-cam went in and we decided we weren't going to touch it,'' Bates said. ``I know she'll get us through the day.''

That day can be very rough.

He gets tossed side to side, slips on wet sails, picks up a spinnaker saturated with 80 pounds of water, gets his blonde hair drenched by waves that pour through the hatch and repairs ripped sails while the race is going on.

``It gets hot and really sweaty, just dripping off you,'' Bates said.

His experience as sewerman in two previous America's Cups helps him anticipate the boat's movement so he can balance himself. He's proud of his work in a sewer.

``The whole word puts a sour note on it,'' Bates said. ``I'm pretty brief when people ask. I know the guys on the team know what's going on.''