SAILING : Bertrand needs to buy time

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The Independent Online
For once, John Bertrand may be content to come second. The man who won the America's Cup for Australia in 1983, saw it return Stateside in 1987, and wants to repeat his singular feat in 1995, would not normally want to lose to anyone. But, for the semi-finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup - the eventual winner of the series will meet the United States defender - there is an element of damage limitation and of buying time.

The sinking of oneAustralia in 500ft of water during the final series of elimination trials is a severe blow. The return to the earlier boat of the same name means Bertrand has lost an edge he hoped he would have and which every America's Cup syndicate wants. Why rely on close-combat skill when you can win with firepower?

The first modifications have been made to the "old" boat during four days in the shed, transferring the results of continuous development by the design team and experience of the newer boat on the water. They have to hope this will be enough to secure a place in the challenger finals and, with it, the nine days between the two which will allow further changes and further speed improvements.

Bertrand has not been allowed to replace the 11 sails lost when the boat went down. That would have needed the consent of both the other challengers and the defenders. None of the defenders would agree, nor would Chris Dickson, who has been painted as the bad guy for that. The intriguing question would be why either Team New Zealand or Nippon Challenge would agree.

Dickson is still the unknown quantity in the quartet. His boat, Tag Heuer, is markedly different from all the others - very fine bows, skinny body. He has so far kept his powder dry and expenditure down, but he has now brought in five sailmakers, and has probably triggered another tranche of sponsorship cash to fund the designer Bruce Farr's development programme, including a further keel change. He has also seen the return of Steve Cotton, who lost the tips of two fingers in an accident in January.

In 1992, Dickson went into the semi-finals as the leading points scorer in Nippon Challenge. This time, his then lieutenant John Cutler squeezed into fourth place, but somehow looks stronger than that. He says their new boat needs a major advance in performance if they are to reach the final, and that he fears oneAustralia more than Dickson.

The Australians will be highly motivated in a boat that is very similar. Cutler is the improving man of the party picked out by oneAustralia's starting and upwind helmsman, Rod Davis, for special praise.

It is remarkable that all four boats lining up for their first of the semi-final races tomorrow will have at the helm four men who live within 30 miles of each other in Auckland. They race against each other four times and the two top scorers go through.

One of those, the banker, should be Russell Coutts, the skipper of Team New Zealand. Everyone refers to his so-far unbeaten yacht as "the black boat", and everyone knows that the design team of Laurie Davidson, Doug Peterson and David Alan-Williams may have even more up their sleeves. That will also apply to their back-up boat. Both are measured and ready to sail.

Both are also similar to the leader in the defender trials, Pact '95. The difference is that Kevin Mahaney has again had to cope with a damaged hull - 30 square feet of delamination as the boat came off a wave when under tow.

So his programme is behind schedule, Bill Koch's all-woman team has had structural damage to contend with, steering problems and trouble mastering their new Mighty Mary. And Dennis Conner seems to be struggling for rhythm and speed.

All of which looks good for the challengers. But they thought that in 1992.