Sailing: Baird crew overboard as wave hits challenge

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THE YOUNG AMERICA skipper Ed Baird was determined to stay awake last night, sitting with his broken America's Cup boat, which almost sank during a Louis Vuitton Cup race in the Hauraki Gulf off Auckland.

The 80-foot craft's bow and stern could be seen sticking up in the air after the accident, which happened when the yacht - one of 11 teams from seven countries contesting the trophy to select a challenger to sail against New Zealand for the America's Cup in February next year - surfed between two waves in a race with Nippon Challenge.

Crumpled like a torn paper bag, Young America limped back to port, its crew frantically pumping water out of the hull to keep it afloat. The American yachtsmen were exhausted and soaked after diving off the boat, which threatened to sink nearly 10 miles from land after it was hit by a large wave.

"It just didn't appear like things were going to be able to hang together, and looking around at a bunch of Whitbread Round the World Race guys saying: `We're out of here'. I think the right thing to do was to get the group off the boat," Baird said.

Baird, who sails out of the New York Yacht Club, managed a wan smile as he pondered how the $5m (pounds 3.1m) boat could be salvaged.

"I'm not going to sleep tonight," he said. "I'm going to continue to think about how we can win the America's Cup. It's what we came here for. My gut reaction is that we can salvage this boat - and we will." That process would involve rebuilding part of the hull with extra carbon fibre and restrengthening it.

Only once in the 150-year his-tory of the America's Cup has a boat sunk, when OneAustralia slipped to a watery grave off San Diego four years ago. Baird was racing against that boat, as 17th man on the Team New Zealand yacht.

Both Young American and OneAustralia snapped around the same spot, just behind the mast. Yesterday, Young America's deck caved in, pulling the ends of the boat up like a banana. "The difference is, we found our boat," Baird said, adding that he would have no problem keeping his crew's spirits afloat - on the contrary, in fact.

"They have to be settled down," he said. "They are so fired up about getting back racing again. They see this as a setback, but also as a way to pull the team together."

Fortunately, Young America is a two-boat campaign, so they will be able to race the un-tried USA58 once they are ready to return to the water. Both boats were designed by the New Zealander Bruce Farr, who drew up most of New Zealand's past Cup boats.

"Clearly our boat wasn't strong enough for the conditions," Baird said. "But we don't know if it was a miscalculation or something not adhering properly. It's one of the worst things that can happen. But there's danger every day we go racing, and we are pushing the limits of what they can do."

Italy's Prada Challenge maintained her undefeated record at the top of the leaderboard yesterday, having chalked up a convincing win over Young Australia on the third day of round two of the Cup.

Other winners yesterday were Paul Cayard's AmericaOne, and the Spanish Challenge skippered by Pedro Campos, while John Kolius and his crew had the closest victory of the day, beating Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes by three seconds.