French polish brings a glimmer of hope

Andrew Preece finds the cut is concentrating America's Cup minds in Auckland

There are many ways to win a sailing race and a clutch of them were on display to a large America's Cup spectator fleet in Auckland yesterday as the high-scoring nine-point phase of the Louis Vuitton Cup reached a compelling stage .

There are many ways to win a sailing race and a clutch of them were on display to a large America's Cup spectator fleet in Auckland yesterday as the high-scoring nine-point phase of the Louis Vuitton Cup reached a compelling stage .

It was a heartening day for those who like their sailing races won by the raw tactical combat that is match racing at its best. The French and the Japanese scored crucial wins after impressive pre-start phases: Bertrand Pacé, at the helm of the French boat, cleaned out John Kolius' flailing Abracadabra team to win the favoured right-hand end of the start line and, thereafter, the race. But while the French will be heartened by the win, the fact that the Hawaiian boat was quicker through the water does not bode well for their longer-term goal of moving out of ninth place.

Kolius needed the win just as desperately: his team are sailing their second, more radical boat, and the loss to France dropped them to eighth. Only the top six at the end of this round-robin will qualify for the next phase.

Another skipper with an impressive match-racing record is Peter Gilmour, skipper of the Japanese challenge. Gilmour made dramatic work of tying Stars & Stripes' skipper Ken Read in knots and sent Dennis Conner's hired gun scurrying into a tightly packed spectator fleet to break free.

When Read returned, Gilmour was waiting and controlled the start, led Stars & Stripes away and played the shifts to extend an unbeatable margin. The Japanese are the impressive team of this third round, particularly since their three-win, no-loss record has been against the relatively strong middle order. Like the Hawaiians, the Japanese are sailing their second and newest boat, Idaten, and their three nine-point wins have elevated them to third.

By contrast Paul Cayard and the AmericaOne team demonstrated their confidence in progressing past Christmas by electing to sail their first boat once again for this round. Like the Japanese, Cayard has a three-nil record for the round, which puts AmericaOne in second place behind Prada. But while Cayard's results look impeccable, he was given a scare by the Young Australia skipper,James Spithill, sailing the boat his team has chartered from Cayard, who got one over on the man of the moment and led him across the starting line by eight seconds. Gear failure then cost Spithill his lead, but he made inroads into Cayard downwind only to lose sight of the race when further damage occurred on the second upwind leg.

But if winning the pre-start is one way to gain a crucial advantage, catching the wind shifts on the race track is another and the Spanish, after starting evenly with America True, hooked into an early favourable shift, crossed ahead of the Americans and successfully warded off the challenges of America True's helmsman, John Cutler. With Olympic gold medal talent at the wheel of Bravo España in the form of Luis Doreste, the Spanish team now lie in sixth and have an outside chance of making the cut in a week's time.

The easiest way to win a sailing race, of course, is with the opposition stuck back at their compound. With his back to the wall the New York Yacht Club's skipper Ed Baird will take his wins where he can, and none will be easier than yesterday's against the Swiss FAST 2000 syndicate, who were unable to start the race having broken their only mast on Friday.

The sail-over elevated Young America to seventh place and by the end of next week they will know if they are this America's Cup's most expensive mistake or whether they are merely slow starters.

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