Coutts relies on Black Magic

SAILING : There was plenty to prove as the unbeaten Russell Coutts in the boat he likes to call Black Magic, Team New Zealand, lined up against the multi-national Rod Davis, driving John Bertrand's oneAustralia, in their first meeting of the Loui s Vuitton Cup here yesterday.

Coutts, a former world match racing champion, was the man who displaced Davis as skipper when tensions boiled over on the little red New Zealand boat for the final two races of the Louis Vuitton in 1992.

Davis, a native of San Diego who won Olympic gold for the US, watched grim-faced as Coutts lost to the Italians. But he restored his pride by winning silver in Barcelona for New Zealand, where he has a wife and children, and then joined the Australians for the 1995 cup.

Bertrand is the only skipper to have beaten the Americans in the 144-year history of the cup. He arrived in California as favourite to beat the other six challengers because of a strong technological programme, but, while the much lower-key Team New Zealand were unbeaten in their first three races, Bertrand lost one against the Japanese, won one against his rival Australian, Syd Fischer, and took a day off in between.

Neither side took any risks in the pre-start, but when they hit the line, Coutts seemed to have negated the advantage Davis wanted in controlling the left side of the line by dialling in so much extra height in the direction of the upwind turning mark that he seemed ready to burn Davis off.

But the Australians were able not only to match the Kiwis for speed, they came back at them and forced Coutts to break away. Then shifting conditions took over, the light winds were variable and changing constantly in direction.

The first two races of the day - the other Anzac battle where Syd Fischer's Sydney '95, helmed by Chris Law, left Chris Dickson in Tag Heuer stuck on the start line, and Nippon Challenge sailed away from Spain's Pedro Campos, parked behind the start linefor over two minutes - were abandoned as they could not make the 50-minute deadline for the first 3.75-mile leg.

But the second Anzac duo made it with just three minutes to spare and within half a mile of the turn Davis passed ahead of Coutts. The black boat, with crewman Murray Jones perched 80 feet above the deck up the mast looking for tell-tale puffs of breeze on the water, stood on out to sea, turned, passed ahead of oneAustralia and rounded 55.5sec in the lead, which they maintained for the first run., and extended to 1 min 27sec on the next leg.

And on the defender course the first meeting between the two new boats, Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes and Kevin Mahaney's Pact '95, had the young American giving the old campaigner a good race, despite Conner's ability to read what the fickle breeze would do next, and Pact was leading by over a minute at the end of the opening leg, but this was cut to 20sec at the half-way point.

America's Cup Challenger SERIES, Standings (San Diego): Team New Zealand (NZ), 3pts; Nippon Challenge (Japan), 2; Sydney '95 (Aus), 2; oneAustralia (Aus), 1; Tag Heuer (NZ), 1; Bayona-Valencia (Sp) 0; France America (Fr), 0.