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Kiwis Protect America’s Cup

February 23, 2000

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) _ A knock on a second-floor door at the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron gets you in to see the shiny America’s Cup.

Just don’t stand too close. And definitely don’t do anything that the security guard, a New Zealand army veteran, might think is threatening the oldest trophy in sports.

As New Zealand’s Black Magic sails against Italy’s Luna Rossa out on the Hauraki Gulf, the three-foot prize they’re battling for rests in a bulletproof case, further protected by a silent alarm that will trip on touch.

The public is welcome, even allowed to stand a few steps inside the ushers ropes to pose for a picture with the America’s Cup. The room, which overlooks the green waters of Auckland Harbor, contains other mementos of Team New Zealand’s whipping of Dennis Conner off San Diego in 1995.

It’s a far cry from the days when the America’s Cup was bolted to a table at the New York Yacht Club, with mere mortals denied a look at the silver Victorian pitcher that was crafted in London 13 years before the U.S. Civil War started.

And it might be somewhat surprising that the America’s Cup is on display at all.

In March 1997, New Zealand was shocked when a Maori independence activist walked into the yacht squadron and, in a politically motivated attack, smashed the trophy’s midsection with a sledgehammer.

While the Maori, Benjamin P. Nathan, eventually sent several months in jail, the Auld Mug returned to England _ strapped into a first-class seat _ to be restored by Garrard’s, the royal jeweler that created it in 1848.

When it came back, it was taken on a national tour before being put back on display.

``I think it’s part of the New Zealand way. We don’t do overkill,″ said Yvonne Lendrum, one of the volunteers who escorts visitors. ``These things (security measures) are in place, but we don’t want to make it tough. We want to be able to see people taking photographs with it.

``We don’t want to shut it away and not see it. We all feel we have a part of it.″

Black Magic is doing its part to keep sailing’s top prize at the yacht squadron, which was established in 1859, eight years after the schooner America won the trophy and gave it its name by upstaging an English fleet.

Black Magic has a 2-0 lead over Italy’s Luna Rossa, which was snake-bitten and left bloodied in Race 2. Bowman Massimiliano Sirena gashed his head helping to untangle a mass of debris that fouled Luna Rossa’s keel. He needed seven stitches but will be OK to sail when the best-of-9 series resumes on Thursday. Team New Zealand sent Sirena 30 red roses.

There are a few simple rules to view the America’s Cup. Visitors must check in at the front desk before proceeding upstairs to the locked Trophy Room, and no bags are allowed. That’s how Nathan kept his short-handled sledgehammer hidden.

A man in a group of tourists leaned in for a real close look and was politely chided by Lendrum.

``We’re all very nervous in case the alarm goes off,″ she told him.

If that happened, officers from a maritime unit nearby would be on the scene in 1 minute.

At night, the America’s Cup is packed in its Louis Vuitton case and either stored in a vault at the yacht club or taken off premises.

The RNZYS hasn’t tried to expunge the hammer attack from memory. A photo album details the damage and shows the various stages of the three-month repair.

``It’s probably in much better condition now than it even was before,″ Lendrum said. ``It’s certainly cleaner. It’s part of the history of the Cup now.″

Jennifer Austin of the eliminated America True syndicate wanted to see the Cup before returning to San Francisco.

``It is beautiful,″ she said. ``It’s probably even more beautiful than I guess it was a couple years ago, when the Maori guy crashed-and-burned it. They were able to at least fix it up real good. I heard it had some other dents and scratches from all the partying it’s been in.″

When the Kiwis won the America’s Cup in 1995, they partied with it all night long. While it must have been a thrill to drink champagne from the Cup, they might have been better served to swig it straight out of a bottle.

That’s because the trophy is held together by a rod that goes to within three inches of the top.

``So when they poured champagne in the top in San Diego, none of it was going in anyway,″ said Ken Pascoe, the yacht squadron’s general manager. ``It only holds about half a glass.″

On Wednesday, the international jury ruled that Team New Zealand’s use of earpieces for onboard communications, one of its many innovations on Black Magic, is legal. The Italians questioned whether the wireless devices might be able to receive signals from off the boat.

The Kiwis use the devices so skipper Russell Coutts doesn’t have to yell at his crew over the din of helicopters, particularly in the frenzied prestart maneuvers.

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