Sailing: Dickson ruffles the calm waters

It has been a high-octane climax to the second round- robin of the Louis Vuitton Cup as the wind has at last kicked in and the drama has kicked off.

You could pick any one of a number of incidents as the scene-stealers: Russell Coutts's Alinghi splintering a spinnaker pole in a desperate attempt to preserve a lead against Prada; the previously imperious OneWorld trawling their spinnaker, catching it on the rudder, and then losing the race to the French Le Defi; Chris Dickson, the controversial new Oracle skipper, masterminding a win over Alinghi and opening up a new seam of form; the Italian Mascalzone Latino team going emotionally out of the competition yesterday after losing in their final decider to the French. For the first time in the competition the pulse has quickened as the stakes have been raised with seeding for the quarter-finals a hot topic of conversation.

There was never much doubt that one of Mascalzone Latino or the French Le Defi would be first out. In the first round Mascalzone beat France and suddenly looked a stronger prospect. But then, two days ago, France turned over OneWorld, albeit with good fortune on their side, and it was all down to the final encounter of the round.

In the end it was an anticlimax: in a split tack start France took the right, Italy the left. The right paid and that was the race decided. "When we came here our goal was to try not to be first out," said a tearful Vincenzo Onorato, owner, skipper and grinder of the Italian team. "And we came close to that. We love the America's Cup, we'll be back."

The French were jubilant simply not to be going home but further up the scoreboard there were similarly important cut-off points. At the top of the table Alinghi and OneWorld have underlined their potential as Louis Vuitton Cup finalists but two teams have revitalised ailing campaigns.

Everyone said the wheels were coming off Prada after they won just half their first-round races but reports of their demise have been dramatically proven premature. With a new bow and a new spirit Prada have won all but one of their second-round matches (though they were lucky to scrape past Mascalzone within metres of the line) and finished the round safe top-four contenders. The fortunes of Oracle have been even more spectacularly turned around: Larry Ellison was a laughing stock here when he announced he had reinstated the mercurial Dickson as skipper after a poor first round. But Ellison has had the last laugh as Oracle dropped just one race – against Prada – until yesterday. If Oracle can beat Victory and Le Defi today, Ellison's team will lie second overall.

But it is in the middle of the pack that the GBR Challenge are fighting. After winning four races in the first round the stated aim was to win an extra one this time. If they could do that, a precious fifth overall would have been the prize and with it a chance to choose their quarter-final opponent. But despite a close encounter with Prada where the GBR Challenge led around the top mark for the first time but could not hold the 2000 Louis Vuitton Cup winners off, the British finished yesterday with just three wins – against Mascalzone, Le Defi and Stars & Stripes – and will wind up sixth when the final outstanding races are sailed in Auckland today.

"When we came here we didn't know if we would win any races," said a philosophical syndicate chairman Peter Harrison, "and we've ended up winning seven."

"We've got a day off tomorrow and then it's straight back into it with new sails and a new boat to test," said a tired, but still determined skipper Ian Walker.

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