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AMERICA'S CUP Swiss boat challenges N. Zealand



Published: Mon, February 17, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Alinghi of Switzerland will try to bring the title to Europe for the first time in 152 years.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) -- Who says the America's Cup is boring?

A sport that has served up "snoozers" in the past is about to launch one of its biggest grudge matches ever.

The Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, represented by Team New Zealand, owns the America's Cup. Alinghi of Switzerland, which is crewed by far more Kiwis than Swiss, wants it.

They'll fight it out starting tonight on the fluky Hauraki Gulf, where most of both crews learned to sail.

On the Swiss boat are skipper Russell Coutts, tactician Brad Butterworth and four other key Kiwis who helped Team New Zealand win the America's Cup in 1995 and successfully defend it in 2000. Their defections angered many in this remote country of 3.8 million.

Bertarelli is backer

Backed by 37-year-old biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, Alinghi is trying to take the silver trophy back to Europe for the first time in 152 years. Bertarelli also is the navigator, and during most races in the challenger series he was the only Swiss in the 16-man crew on SUI-64.

And, of course, Switzerland is the first landlocked country to reach the America's Cup match.

Sailing the Kiwis' black boat, NZL-82, are 29-year-old skipper Dean Barker and a relatively inexperienced crew that had to be almost totally rebuilt after 12 of 16 front-line sailors jumped to foreign crews after the 2000 defense.

And quite simply, New Zealanders would love nothing more than to have Barker kick Coutts, his former mentor, right in the stern.

New Zealanders have branded Coutts, Butterworth and the other "Kiwi Swiss" as traitors.

Team New Zealand sanctioned a campaign with a logo featuring the word "Loyal" and a fern, the national symbol, in white on a background of black, the national sporting color. "Loyal" flags fly everywhere, including at City Hall. Waiters in some restaurants wear "Loyal" T-shirts. As Alinghi is towed out to the racecourse during the best-of-9 series, the high-tech sloop, painted black with funky red swirls, will pass a giant "Loyal" banner on the side of Princes Wharf. Twin "Loyal" logos on the side of a downtown high-rise are visible from the Swiss compound.

The futuristic Sky Tower, which pokes some 1,100 feet above Auckland, will be blacked out the night before each race in a hometown show of support.

Reason for leaving

Coutts and Butterworth have tried to stay above the fray. They recently said they left Team New Zealand because the transition from the old leadership group to the group they would help lead didn't go as smoothly as they anticipated.

Coutts led Alinghi to a 26-4 record in the challenger series, including 5-1 over San Francisco's Oracle in the finals.

In the last two America's Cup regattas, Team New Zealand was 47-1. The Kiwis swept Dennis Conner 5-0 to win the Cup in 1995, then defended it by sweeping Italy's Prada in five races.

The forecast is for a southwesterly wind of 10-15 knots with gusts to 21 knots. Alinghi will enter for the pre-start maneuvers from the favored starboard end. The boats will alternate starting positions each race.




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