Start line holds key to how the Cup will finish

Russell Coutts (right) leads the America's Cup favourites, but Dennis Conner (left) has strength in depth. Stuart Alexander reports from San Diego
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The Independent Online
You do not have to have anything against Dennis Conner, San Diego or southern California to want the Kiwis to win the America's Cup, which, weather willing, starts today. It would just be very good for the event to see it move - and that would include, in time, on from Auckland, if that is where the XXXth defence ends up being held.

In the meantime, there is the little matter of the Team New Zealand skipper, Russell Coutts, his crew and his yacht having to win five races in the best of nine against the best that American design and boatbuilding can produce, as well as the canniest, most seasoned crew the country can muster.

Most pundits are predicting a 5-2 or 5-3 result, the question is which way? An increasing number are giving it to Dennis Conner, who has drunk deeply of the elixir of youth by discarding his own yacht, Stars and Stripes, and requesting the yacht built for the syndicate that came second in the defender qualifier series, Pact '95's Young America. The Roy Lichtenstein mermaid all along the hull makes it one of the most striking to grace an America's Cup.

The Las Vegas bookmakers have been quoting odds of 3-1 against Conner, 5-1 on for the Kiwis. They must know something no one else knows, for those odds are far too optimistic in favour of the black boat at this stage. Given the fluky nature of the San Diego race track, the odds against Conner are attractive enough to warrant a gamble.

Conner is always a hard man to beat, he does not like the Kiwis very much, and they do not particularly like him. He has alongside him a man in form, Paul Cayard, who steers the boat at the start and on the upwind and downwind legs - preserving continuity of concentration.

Conner's tactician Tom Whidden is also in form, his ability to read what the capricious wind off San Diego is doing being a decisive factor in giving Conner and Cayard control of a race. He has also been careful to say publicly on three occasions how it took time to learn how to work with Cayard and how that is progressing well.

Cayard has been handling the pre-starts with verve, securing the end of the line which Whidden called, and then squeezing every ounce out of his boat upwind. Whidden has, more often than not, picked the right side of a course on which the wind constantly varies in strength and direction.

It is vital to be on the favoured side, invaluable to be ahead the first time the boats try to cross each other. The yacht in front can tack on top of the one behind, pouring bad exhaust off the back of its sails and establishing control.

If either of the two has a clear boat-speed advantage, and that is what both groups of designers and technologists will have been aiming at, then their tactics can be more conservative. If they are even, then aggression at the start, the right pick and some luck will play a more crucial role. Once ahead, a yacht can make it mighty difficult to overtake.

It is at the start that one of Coutts' perceived weaknesses lies, and for which he has been specifically practising for the last 10 days. There, and in what is thought to be a boat design with a hull which is less responsive and manoeuvrable.

Perhaps. No one really knows. Coutts was not world match-racing champion twice without being able to start and his crew are at least as tightly knit and water wise as Conner's. Conner will have as many new sails as he wants, but Team New Zealand has nine left of its maximum allowance of 45. Neither is short of firepower.

Coutts' yacht won 37 out of 38 starts in the Louis Vuitton Cup and its designers know they have been increasing its performance all along. While racing, once ahead they took no further risks, indicating a potential greater than the bare statistics indicate.

The words have, for the time being, come to an end. At long last the contest moves to the water where it really belongs. Having been totally wrong about the Italians winning last time, the neck is stretched again, this time in the direction of the Land of the Long White Cloud.

AMERICA'S CUP (San Diego) Schedule of Races: 1 6 May; 2 8 May; 3 9 May; 4 11 May; 5 13 May; 6 14 May; 7 16 May; 8 18 May; 9 20 May. Reserves: 21-23 and 25-27 May.