Sailing With New Zeal

THE America's Cup was won Saturday with a show of Yankee ingenuity, hard work, and good sportsmanship. It played out a theme dear to American sports fans: The little-known underdog who shows true grit to defeat a sports Goliath.

All these qualities were in full display during the recent yacht races off San Diego. But it was New Zealand's entry, Black Magic, that showed them and won the cup, only the second time in 144 years that a non-American crew has captured yachting's most prestigious prize.

The New Zealand team easily bested skipper Dennis Conner and the US crew sailing Young America by breezing to a 5-0 series win, with every victory by at least 1 minute, 50 seconds. The Kiwi triumph combined skilled sailing with a technological innovation: The New Zealanders brought computer work stations right to dockside and constantly made changes to add speed to their boat.

Living on an island where no one is more than 60 miles from the ocean, the 3.5 million New Zealanders love the sea and sailing. Auckland, ''the City of Sails,'' should be an outstanding host for the next cup defense in 1999-2000. In yanking the trophy away from the United States (Australia is the only other country to do it, in 1983), the Kiwi victory will increase worldwide interest in sailing, including here in the US, where the cup race must compete for public attention with myriad other sports.

This year's American defense of the cup was marred by bizarre stretching of the rules that allowed Conner to wiggle his way into a three-way challenger series that he eventually won. He then stretched the rules again by abandoning his boat, Stars & Stripes, and borrowing Young America from another competitor for the finals.

As defender, New Zealand is likely to put an end to that kind of win-at-all-costs rule-bending that distracts from the pure sport. It is a country where thousands of ordinary citizens bought red socks to show their support and raise funds for their team, and where the Black Magic crew received tactical advice by fax from sheep farmers back home. Clearly, the cup is in the hands of a nation that knows and loves sails and the sea. It is a deserving new home for America's Cup.

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