America's Cup

This year's version of the classic sailing event is the most high-tech, most intense of them all

IF you glanced down, then up, during the photo-finish of the second America's Cup race Sunday, you wasted more time than separated United States loser America3 from Italy's Il Moro di Venezia. If you paused long enough to read something as long as this paragraph, you spent the same amount of time (30 seconds) that separated the boats in the first race, won by America3.

In one sense, the quaint, old-fashioned test of seamanship is being swept overboard like a sailor without Topsiders in the most high-tech America's Cup match of them all. No less than $160 million is sunk into the computer-designed hulls, sails, keels, fins, and rudders now bobbing off San Diego in a battle of billionaires.

In another sense, the human element has moved front and center, as when Italian skipper Paul Cayard botched the start of the first race by misreading his electronic speed gauge. By not accounting for the speed of the current, Cayard crossed the 200-yard starting line too early. That cost Il Moro 30 seconds, which was America3's margin of victory.

The best-of-seven series continues Saturday off Point Loma, where four months of trials have produced upsets and surprises based on changing wind and ocean conditions.

A statistical comparison of the two boats shows that Bill Koch's America3 is technically a faster boat - about 1 minute, 32 seconds around the 2 1/2-hour-plus course (just under America3's 1:58 victory margin in Tuesday's third race). But 22 of 29 international yachting experts in another survey pick the Il Moro crew of Italian owner Raul Gardini as the more versatile. (Thursday's race results were not available at press time.)

Amid recession and the recent rioting in Los Angeles, the 1992 America's Cup has not been the tourist- or audience-attracting spectacle that past events have been - despite ESPN's 11-camera coverage (including two helicopters, four "yacht-cams," "scubacams," chase boats, and more).

Initial estimates that hosting the event would bring about $1 billion in local revenue are now being derided in the local press.

The lack of attention is a crime, says Larry Keating, a lifetime sailor from New Zealand and a yachting historian.

"The designs of these boats and the advances in materials are making the 1992 races the most spectacular ever," he says, noting that carbon fiber is playing a major role in the construction of hulls, spars, masts, and sails.

He adds: "From a competitor's standpoint, this final is surpassing in intensity all we've ever seen."

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