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post #499 of (permalink) Old 03-02-2003, 03:23 PM
country flag Mrs. B
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Swiss breeze to America's Cup sweep

Switzerland's Alinghi won the America's Cup in 5-0 clean sweep of New Zealand. AP

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) -- Swiss biotech billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli grabbed the America's Cup and tossed it onto his shoulder, celebrating a remarkable win for a country without an ocean.

Landlocked Switzerland did what so many other European nations failed to do -- bring sailing's biggest prize to the continent for the first time in the silver trophy's 152-year history.

Alinghi clinched the five-race sweep with a 45-second victory Sunday over hard-luck Team New Zealand, the two-time defending champion. Dominating the series with a crew full of New Zealanders who'd been branded as traitors, skipper Russell Coutts took the cup away from the country he brought it to in 1995.

"Switzerland -- who would have thought, the America's Cup," said Bertarelli, the 37-year-old who funded Alinghi and sailed as its navigator.

"So if we can put it on top of the Matterhorn, we will do that."

He seemed to be only half-kidding.

Several European tycoons tried over 15 decades to take back the trophy that the yacht America won by beating a fleet of British schooners around the Isle of Wight in 1851. Bertarelli was the one who finally succeeded, after scooping up the best Kiwi sailors his money could buy.

With no coastline, the Swiss will have to defend the oldest trophy in international sports elsewhere in Europe, probably in 2007 and somewhere on the Mediterranean or Atlantic.

That's fine with Bertarelli. He's just ecstatic that his team will take home the old silver jug to the Geneva Nautical Society, a yacht club on Lake Geneva.

"For me, the fact that Switzerland wins the America's Cup is a sign of hope for a lot of people," Bertarelli said. "It really says to the world that the impossible doesn't exist."

On a perfect day on the Hauraki Gulf, between Rangitoto and Tiritiri Matangi islands, Coutts again outsailed his former protege, Dean Barker, and led the entire race to end the long, bitter regatta.

"I am a New Zealander. Make no bones about that," Coutts said during the champagne-splashed tow back to port. "But I am immensely proud of what we've achieved at Alinghi. It's been a lot of hard work for me, and as a professional sailor, frankly, I'm proud of what I've done."

Before a quiet crowd of New Zealanders at the waterfront presentation, Bertarelli was the first to hoist the America's Cup. He passed it around to his raucous crewmen while Coutts sprayed champagne. Coutts didn't touch the cup at the ceremony, but he shook hands with the Kiwi crew and later talked quietly with Team New Zealand executive director Ross Blackman. Later, Coutts was tossed into the water.

After winning Race 5, the normally pokerfaced Coutts smiled and waved to a support boat as the black sloop with red swirls crossed the line.

Bertarelli started the celebration a few hundred yards before the finish. He touched fists with tactician Brad Butterworth and shook hands with German-born strategist Jochen Schuemann, a three-time Olympic gold medalist.

The champagne arrived moments after the finish, and Alinghi's crew hoisted a banner showing the America's Cup atop the Matterhorn, with the saying: "We did it!!!" They also hoisted a broom to celebrate the sweep. Supporters clanged cowbells and waved red-and-white Swiss flags.

The Kiwis quietly drank beer as their boat, NZL-82, was towed into the harbor.

"They've been phenomenal," Barker said of Alinghi. "They've completely dominated us. They just put together a near-flawless performance."

Coutts, 41, capped a remarkable feat by sailing unbeaten through his third straight cup match. He has won a record 14 straight races, making the most dominant and one of the greatest skippers in the event's colorful history.

Sailing a fast boat, Coutts and his crew were flawless and unflappable through a series that was marred by wild weather swings, spectacular breakdowns on Team New Zealand's boat and an undercurrent of resentment over Kiwi defections to foreign syndicates three years ago.

"We really didn't have any big weaknesses," Coutts said. "If you had looked at us in November 2000, you would have said, 'There's no way Alinghi can win the cup.' But somehow we managed to come through. We worked very, very hard on this project."

With his longtime friend and tactician Butterworth calling the shots, Coutts hit the starting line right on time in his 80-foot sloop; Barker was a second late. Alinghi controlled the right side of the course in 15 knots of wind, and gained immediately from a wind shift.

When the yachts converged on opposite tacks for the first time, Coutts crossed ahead and immediately tacked in front of the Kiwis, a "slam dunk" that established control.

Team New Zealand had another mishap, this time snapping its carbon-fiber spinnaker pole after the sail wrapped around it on the downwind fourth leg. The frustrated crew tossed the broken spar overboard. They had a spare but still lost time and trailed by 31 seconds after four legs of the six-leg, 18.5-nautical mile course.

So dominant in the previous two cup regattas, Team New Zealand was weakened by the loss of one-third of its sailors and designers to other syndicates. Its boat was supposed to be fast, with a radical hull appendage called a "hula," but the sloop practically fell apart in two races that it couldn't finish.

New Zealanders felt betrayed by the defections, most notably by Coutts and Butterworth, and late last year Alinghi received letters threatening family members of some of its New Zealand crewmen.

Bertarelli, the navigator, was one of only three Swiss on the 16-man crew for the clinching win.

Seven Kiwis were aboard Alinghi, including six who helped Team New Zealand to five-race sweeps of Dennis Conner in 1995 off San Diego and Italy's Prada Challenge in a successful defense in 2000.

On the third anniversary of that win, it was Coutts and the "Kiwi Swiss" who again enjoyed a five-race sweep. It was also three years ago that Coutts, having staked Team New Zealand to a 4-0 lead over Prada, handed the wheel to Barker and watched the deciding win from a chase boat.

Alinghi's crew also included pitman Josh Belsky of Hood River, Ore., and grinder John Barnitt of Genoa, Nev., plus an Italian, a Canadian and a Dutchman.

Coutts became the first skipper to win the America's Cup for two countries. He set the record for overall wins in the America's Cup match with 14, breaking a tie with Conner.

Only Coutts, Harold Vanderbilt (1930, 1934, 1937) and Charlie Barr (1899, 1901, 1903) have won three straight America's Cup matches.

There were seven postponements in this America's Cup because of uncooperative weather, extending the series across 16 days. Race 4 was postponed six times, first by light wind and then by gales. By then, Alinghi's victory seemed inevitable.

When Race 4 finally got under way, the Kiwis endured the worst of their two breakdowns: Their 110-foot mast snapped in two, giving Alinghi an easy victory. After another postponement Saturday, the Kiwis competed in the final race using the mast from their backup boat.

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