The most exciting moment in the sport of sailing is the first race of the America's Cup. The anticipation is high, the sailors are nervous and the syndicate sponsors are anxious. The stakes are significant because the winner of this regatta takes the America's Cup trophy and the regatta to its home waters. Based on what we have seen in Valencia, Spain, this 156-year-old competition is now the "Billion-Dollar Cup."
The biggest question is always who will win?
Emirates Team New Zealand returns to the America's Cup final for the fifth time in the past six Cups. In 2003, the Kiwis were embarrassed on their home waters, losing five straight races to Switzerland. But the Swiss boat was sailed by a New Zealand skipper, tactician and sail trimmers. This time, Switzerland has an American helmsman, Ed Baird of St. Petersburg, Fla., and the Kiwis have an American tactician, Terry Hutchinson, calling the shots. The performance of these two sailors may be the key to success for both teams.
In the America's Cup, the defender and challenger do not normally compete against each other in advance of the races. But before the 2007 match, New Zealand (NZL 92) and Switzerland (SUI 100) have raced formally, and informally, against each other several times.
The last preliminary regatta was Louis Vuitton Act 13 in early April. Switzerland ended up on top and New Zealand placed second. In head-to-head competition, Emirates has won six out of 10 matches.
The results of these races indicate we will hopefully see some tight racing when the Cup begins Saturday. Two weeks ago, Alinghi and Emirates had six informal races. The score was three wins for each boat. Both teams are secretive about their performance, but a few crew members say the boats were fairly even in speed when the wind was less than 12 knots; but when the wind increased to 14-17 knots, Alinghi had an advantage. Sources also say the New Zealand boat seemed to have an edge when sailing downwind.
In the Louis Vuitton Cup series, all the boats were fairly even in speed. The difference was starting tactics and racecourse strategy.
In all competitions, experience counts heavily when you reach the final. Sailing is no different. Most of Switzerland's crew consists of veterans from the 2003 match as do the Kiwis. The story line is revenge for New Zealand.
Most spectators in Valencia will be cheering for the Swiss because they would like to see the America's Cup remain in Europe. For those in the United States, there is a greater chance for American syndicates to challenge for the Cup if New Zealand wins. The current European format is immensely expensive. Only billionaire software magnate Larry Ellison was able to afford to campaign. In contrast, a combined total of eight American teams challenged in 2000 and 2003 in New Zealand.
Here is a breakdown of the strengths and weaknesses of both teams:
New Zealand: New Zealand always operates with a frugal budget and this year is no different. It has the adequate funds to get the job done.
Alinghi: Billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli has spared no expense for this campaign. He has spent at least double the Kiwis' budget. Three years ago, when New Zealand was struggling to get organized, Bertarelli loaned New Zealand the initial funds to launch its effort.
New Zealand: Dean Barker is sailing in his third America's Cup. He learned a lot as three-time champion Russell Coutts' understudy. Barker was no match for Coutts in 2003, but he has clearly matured and is sailing well now.
Alinghi: American Ed Baird is the likely helmsman for Switzerland. Baird is a highly skilled sailor who places near the top of every regatta he enters. He has won the single-handed Laser Worlds and the Match Racing World Championship. In 2000, he had a tough run as skipper of the New York Yacht Club entry Young America. Baird's technique is very straight-forward with little flair. He does not take chances and rarely makes a mistake. It is no accident the Swiss selected him to steer.
New Zealand: Terry Hutchinson was a two-time College Sailor of the Year at Old Dominion University. In his younger days, he was known for his temper; but over the years, he has matured to be one of the coolest strategists in the world. He has won at every level he competes at and has several world titles to his credit. Hutchinson has been brilliant throughout the Challenger trials. He is sailing at the top of his game. In 2000, he trimmed the mainsail aboard AmericaOne for Paul Cayard. In 2003, he was tactician for Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes. Both efforts came up short, but Hutchinson is better for the experience. If there was an MVP award in the LVC, it would go to Hutchinson.
Alinghi: Brad Butterworth has been the winning tactician in the past three Cups. He is Russell Coutts' longtime side kick. If Butterworth were a table tennis player, he would frustrate any opponent with his precision. He just keeps putting the ball back over the net. He rarely makes a mistake and is always calm in the heat of battle. No tactician has won more races in the America's Cup than Butterworth. Like Baird, he doesn't take chances, but you rarely see any creative moves. The Butterworth/Hutchinson matchup is a classic case of the veteran champ against the rising star. It could be the most interesting part of the Americas' Cup to watch these two superstars match wits.
New Zealand: New Zealand showed steady improvement throughout the LVC. Veteran American designer, Clay Oliver, from Annapolis, Md., is an outstanding engineer who understands how to adapt a boat to specific wind conditions. In the LVC, New Zealand had a considerable speed edge over Italy's Luna Rossa, particularly on the upwind legs on which it was able to sail closer to the wind. The early races and scrimmages against Alinghi will be very much on the minds of Oliver and the other designers as they work to maximize their speed.
Alinghi: Designer coordinator Grant Zimmer was part of the Australia II team that won the America's Cup in 1983. He brought together an international cast of designers and engineers that developed a far superior product in 2003. The whole team is back. The reports are the new boat, SUI 100, is a major step forward.
New Zealand: I like the fact that 14 of the 17 crewmembers are from New Zealand. This is a no-nonsense gang that has consistently demonstrated its sailing prowess. This crew is highly motivated after the crushing loss in 2003.
Alinghi: Most of this crew returns from 2003, as well. But the big difference is that skipper Coutts is sitting on the sideline. The Alinghi crew did not face the test in the Challenger trials like New Zealand.
Edge: New Zealand.
New Zealand: The Kiwis will feel like the Boston Red Sox running out onto the field at Yankee Stadium. The Europeans want the Cup to stay in Europe.
Alinghi: Up until 2003, the most famous mariners from Switzerland were the Swiss Family Robinson (who shipwrecked), but now the Swiss sailors are national heroes. Both the Spanish and Italian teams have been tuning up the Swiss over the past two weeks. It is always nice to play in front of the hometown crowd.
New Zealand: Race veteran Grant Dalton is chairman of the New Zealand syndicate. He is racing aboard the boat as a "floater." In other words, he takes on any dirty job that needs to be done. Dalton is a straight-forward guy who would very much like to return the Cup to his country.
Alinghi: Let there be no doubt that Ernesto Bertarelli wants to win this Cup to maintain his exalted status in Europe. He too sails aboard the boat, often as a grinder.
Edge: Grant Dalton.
Every America's Cup has its share of weird events. It is hard to predict, in advance, what might happen in 2007. One thing is clear, we won't have an ending like the concluding episode of "The Sopranos," when everything is left in doubt.
On paper, Alinghi should win this regatta; they are the defending champion, have home advantage, they're returning their full design team and are highly motivated to keep the Cup in Europe. New Zealand is definitely the underdog. But if there is any group that can upset the champ, it just might be the Kiwis.
If the wind averages 12 knots or less, I'm picking New Zealand. On the other hand, if we have a windy series, Alinghi will prevail. The most interesting test will be in the moderate wind range.
I'm cheering for the underdog.
Gary Jobson is a sailing analyst for ESPN. He is a former collegiate sailor and was a tactician for the 1977 America's Cup-winning yacht Courageous.