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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sailing: Ellison's crew closing in on America's Cup

AP Sports Writer

VALENCIA, Spain The America's Cup hasn't been this close to being back in American hands since Dennis Conner lost it 15 years ago.

Software tycoon Larry Ellison's multinational crew needs one more win against two-time defending champion Alinghi of Switzerland to deliver the oldest trophy in international sports to San Francisco's Golden Gate Yacht Club.

It took just one race in the weather-delayed 33rd America's Cup for challenger BMW Oracle Racing to show that the radical wing sail on its monster trimaran is a game-changer.

Alinghi's reaction to losing the first race by a whopping 15 minutes, 28 seconds was shock, maybe slight resignation and some humor.

The Swiss can't build a wing in just less than 48 hours for their sleek catamaran. It took the Americans several months and millions of dollars to design, build and test the 223-foot wing, which makes the boat go faster than with a traditional soft-sail rig.

Race 2 is scheduled for Sunday over a triangle course on the Mediterranean. The first 13 miles are into the wind, followed by two legs across the wind, a tricky angle for multihulls to sail.

Alinghi owner and helmsman Ernesto Bertarelli was asked after the opening race what the Swiss options were for Race 2.

"Well, the first option is a nice, cold beer," the biotech mogul said.

Bertarelli and his decision-makers spent Saturday replaying Race 1 and figuring out how to mode their boat differently. Neither team went out for a practice sail on a wet, cold and gloomy day.

Nothing of the wing sail's scope has been seen before in the 159-year history of the America's Cup. Conner used a wing sail on his catamaran in routing New Zealand's big-boat challenge in 1988, but it was much smaller.

Brad Butterworth, Alinghi's good-natured skipper and tactician, seemed to put things in perspective when he was asked at the news conference after Race 1 if Alinghi failed in its design.

"What do you want me to say, mate?" the New Zealander said with a bemused chuckle. "They sailed from behind us to in front of us. Did you see what happened? Well, then you can work it out."

Although the Swiss have known for months that the wing was coming, even they seem surprised at how effective it was.

The wing, complete with nine flaps on the trailing edge, gives the Americans the ability to point higher into the wind, and therefore, go faster.

As fast as the Americans were into the wind, they screamed downwind. The windward and center hulls of their stout, 90-by-90-foot boat flew well out of the water, surging more than two miles ahead of Alinghi as they raced along the Spanish coast.

"We were convinced we were going to face a sloop, with a jib and a mainsail, and we're racing a wing," Bertarelli said. "But that's what we have to race, and that's OK. We're proud of what we've done so far with our boat. The America's Cup is not over. We still have one race to go. We'll do everything we can to win the next race."

Still, the Swiss confidence seems to be shaken.

"I think if we get conditions we would like to have, we probably can be competitive," principal designer Rolf Vrolijk said. "We're for sure hoping to see another race maybe in different conditions and anther setup of our boat and hopefully be competitive."

Ellison and Bertarelli fought for 2 years in court over rules, dates and the venue. Because they couldn't agree on terms of a traditional America's Cup regatta, it defaulted to a Deed of Gift match, following the rules of the 1887 document that governs the event.

While a normal America's Cup is best-of-nine, a Deed of Gift match is best-of-three.

So Ellison is halfway to his goal of recapturing the America's Cup for the United States.

BMW Oracle Racing has avoided being cocky, knowing it still needs another win. With high-tech devices such as the wing, there's always the potential for a breakdown.

Still, there's a sense along the docks that if the American yacht stays in one piece, the America's Cup will soon be on a plane for San Francisco.

Ellison represents the United States' best chance to win back the silver trophy that Conner lost off San Diego in 1995 to Team New Zealand and Russell Coutts, who is BMW Oracle Racing's CEO. In the three traditional America's Cup regattas since then, no American boat reached the final match.

Ellison has been pressed repeatedly on his plans if he wins the Cup. The only thing he'll say for sure is that he wants to get back to sailing it in monohulls. He won't commit to a venue. There has been speculation that if it's not San Francisco Bay, it could be back in Valencia or even in Newport, R.I.

That's where the New York Yacht Club defended the Cup for decades and where Ellison recently purchased a mansion. Or, there could be preliminaries in other ports, with the final four or final two boats facing off in San Francisco.

The brash Ellison won't bite.

"I can't get my head beyond doing our best to win that race on Sunday," said Ellison, who took himself off the boat before Friday's race because of a weight limit. "So I don't know what comes after that."

If the Americans win, it appears the bitter legal wrangling between the two billionaires will cease.

"You've got to win the America's Cup on the water and this is a proper regatta," Bertarelli said. "The race was fair, so whoever wins on the water is going to be the winner."