Coutts gives Conner food for thought

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The Independent Online
History in the making or a flash in the pan? Put your money on history after the New Zealanders pummelled the cobbled together defence that is Team Dennis Conner in the first race of the America's Cup.

Saturday's chill westerlies had the southern Californians frowning as the realisation struck home that they had a match on their hands. The conditions were extraordinary, a big, big swell and the wind softening from 14 knots down to nine.

"We don't expect to sail in conditions like that again," said TNZ's American coach Ed Baird, and Conner's tactician,Tom Whidden, said he thought there was little difference in straight-line speed.

The victory by 2min 45sec gave Peter Blake's Black Magic I boat, steered by Russell Coutts, first blood in the best-of-nine series for yachting's greatest prize. "They were doing well but we were doing a little better," Blake said.

Conner's Stars & Stripes team, helmed by Paul Cayard, may have suffered some problems adjusting to their new boat Young America, borrowed from former rivals Pact '95. The Americans made questionable tactical choices and appeared sluggish in making and carrying out some decisions.

"I feel a little bad, I made a couple of mistakes," Cayard said.

"It's easy to second-guess it now," Conner added. "We'll sort out a few problems tomorrow."

Cayard had to sail for the first leg without the usual data from electronic instruments, but he and his vastly experienced crew are all seat-of-the- pants sailors and the Kiwis had their own problems on the first run with the trip mechanism of the spinnaker pole jaw.

The shifts in the direction of the wind often benefit more the boat in the lead and make it difficult for the boat behind to attack. So there was no complacency in the New Zealand camp and they expect Conner's crew to improve steadily on a yacht they have been sailing for only a week.

After all the doubts about how sharp Coutts would be at the start against an in-form and aggressive Cayard, it was he who claimed the right-hand end of the line which both agreed was favoured.

Stars & Stripes crossed the start line a second ahead of Team New Zealand but the Americans had left the door open for the Kiwis. Coutts capitalised to open a 31-second lead after the first, upwind leg when Cayard let himself go out across the lay line to the mark rather than immediately tack back to stay in contact.

"Obviously in hindsight it was a bad move but maybe we weren't playing with all our cards," said Cayard, referring to the instrument failure.

Cayard played to perfection some waves on the downwind leg to close the gap to just 12sec. New Zealand went back out to lead by 42sec on the third leg and a change in wind direction on the fourth leg denied the Americans any tactical flexibility to try to gain ground. The Kiwi lead swelled to 1min 22sec.

Rounding the fifth mark, Cayard was forced to make an unwanted tack to avoid the spectator boats heading into the fifth leg, and Team New Zealand doubled the lead to 2:44 going into the run to the finish.

"The guys sailed the boat pretty darn well today. The reason we lost today wasn't because we didn't know the boat. The better boat won today." Conner said. But Cayard said unfamiliarity with the boat led to problems. "It's just part of the growing process," he said.

AMERICA'S CUP, Race 1: Team New Zealand bt Young America, 2min 45sec.