Sailing: Conner cruises into contention

IF THE America's Cup has been a somewhat uneventful regatta until now, this last week has delivered an enticing combination of damage, disaster and intriguing results: Young America nearly sank after splitting in two, the Japanese lost their mast and the previously impervious Italian Prada team got beaten for the first time.

The week brought more wind and, at four points a race, more pressure. First up was the Young America split that will have every other America's Cup designer worried. Young America was racing upwind in what was later confirmed as a sub-20-knot wind when the boat slammed into an awkward sea and broke in the middle. It's not unusual in America's Cup boats, where around 25 tons of lead are slung in a keel bulb supported by the thinnest of fin structures from the middle of a highly stressed hull.

No sooner had the Americans limped out of the limelight than the Japanese were right there to replace them after a crewing error cost them their mast. Calamity came to call during the Japanese bout with the Louis Vuitton Cup favourite AmericaOne. A runner tail, which supports the mast, slipped out of the winch and the mast broke in two halfway up. The Asura skipper Peter Gilmour was ahead of his rival Paul Cayard at the time and the race was shaping into a vintage contest.

But as Cayard was improving his standings unchallenged, the Italian Prada team suffered their first defeat at the hands of another improving team - Team Dennis Conner. Ken Read, helmsman of Conner's Stars & Stripes, trailed at the start but his navigator Peter Isler hooked them into a favourable shift that allowed them to sail past the Italians. After that, Read and Stars & Stripes never looked back, the irony of the victory being the fact that the mighty Conner was not on board.

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