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8 December 2002, 02:03 pm
Semi Final - Preview
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Semi Final SkippersBob Grieser/Louis Vuitton

America's Cup

Although it may seem from afar that there's little to no action in Auckland, nothing could be farther from the truth.
The America's Cup and Louis Vuitton Cup are alive with intrigue, opinions and broken boats all along Syndicate Row.

With the Challenger Selection Series set to resume tomorrow, the top four teams from the round robins will square off against each other in the Semi Final Round.

No. 1 seed Team Alinghi of Switzerland (17-3 overall record) squares off against Larry Ellison's No. 2 Oracle BMW Racing (16-4) in the top half of the bracket.

The winner of this match advances to the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals while the loser falls to the Semi Final Repechage Round.

The bottom half sees the embattled No. 3 seed OneWorld Challenge (17-7) facing Italy's No. 4 seed Prada Challenge (15-9). The winner advances to the semi finals repechage, while the loser is eliminated.

These are the four biggest teams in the competition. They have the most personnel, two ACC sloops each, countless inflatable boats and an estimated combined budget of US$305 million, almost 70 percent of the estimated US$440 million fleet budget.

While OneWorld and Prada are coming off recent victories in the Quarter Finals Repechage Round, Alinghi and Oracle BMW haven't raced since Nov. 15 and 16, respectively, when each wrapped up their quarter final matches.

Those two teams are anxious to get back on the water. They've spent the last three weeks performing in-house testing and trial racing. And with a forecast of strong winds for the week ahead, all are expecting loaded action.

"The more wind there is; if you make a mistake it's a lot more expensive than it is when it's lighter," Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth said at this morning's pre-round press conference. "It puts a lot more emphasis on crew work. And it's a lot more fun for the sailors. That's for sure."

Butterworth's comments were a mix of prophecy and irony. Around 10:45 am, as Butterworth spoke, his team sustained a broken mast while sailing in approximately 23 knots of wind. The team was conducting downwind two-boat testing with SUI-64 and SUI-75 in freshening conditions and regular squalls.

The mast appeared to break near the hounds, approximately 26 metres off the deck, where the shrouds, forestay and running backstay attach to the mast. The broken section measured about 6.5 metres.

"It's disappointing as we were planning to use this mast for our first race against Oracle tomorrow," said Alinghi's Design Team Coordinator Grant Simmer.

Instead of carrying out final preparations this afternoon for the highly anticipated match against Oracle BMW Racing, now Alinghi is scrambling to fit a spare mast in their primary race boat.

"This is just one of those things that can happen - obviously it could have happened at a better time but at least it didn't happen during racing tomorrow," said Alinghi's mast engineer Pete Lawson. "We have a contingency mast of the same spec so it's just a case of replacing the broken one."

Prada actually made it through the time in between rounds without major modifications to Luna Rossa, ITA-74. Previously in between rounds they've changed bows, twice, aside from other major modifications.

In the last week, Prada has spent more time practising than actually modifying. But ITA-74 was forced back into the shed last Friday to repair starboard-side bow damage suffered in a collision during pre-start trialling against ITA-80.

Starting helmsman Rod Davis was driving 74 and skipper Francesco de Angelis was aboard 80. Although the team downplayed the incident, the sounds of electric saws and grinders could be heard across ViaductBasin for two days as repair work was carried out.

"It's one of those things that happen when you train," de Angelis said. "It's like skiing. If you never fall it means you don't push hard enough. It's sad, because these boats are very delicate. It's a lot of work for the shore team, but on the other side you have to do what you have to do."

All four teams will be sailing well-known boats in the upcoming round. Alinghi will use SUI-64, Oracle BMW Racing USA-76, OneWorld USA-67 and Prada ITA-74.

While Alinghi and Prada dealt with their issues in a professional manner, OneWorld wants to take to the water to get away from the legal proceedings engulfing it shoreside.

The America's Cup Arbitration Panel has been hearing the Yacht Club Punta Ala/Prada Challenge and New York Yacht Club/Team Dennis Conner case against the Seattle Yacht Club and OneWorld since yesterday. That's expected to be decided this evening or tomorrow morning.

But even when it ends OneWorld still has to face the International Jury and a protest filed by NYYC/TDC over Rule 2, Fair Sailing. That's expected to be heard Monday evening.

On the water, OneWorld skipper Peter Gilmour said that the team had made significant improvements to alternate boat USA-65 and have shifted them to USA-67.

"We knew that 65 was going to be a test bed. Whatever we did, we'd take the decisions to 67," said Gilmour. "A couple of the subtleties in the difference of the set up are working better on 67 at the moment."

Given the extenuating circumstances Alinghi, OneWorld and Prada are facing, Oracle BMW enters the semis as the most settled team. They also enter the round on the longest winning streak.

Oracle BMW Racing hasn't lost since impetuous syndicate chief Ellison brought skipper Chris Dickson back into the fold. Dickson organised an unsettled afterguard and the team hasn't lost since Oct. 23, a string of 11 races.

Their match against Alinghi should feature some fireworks, given that Dickson will be going against Coutts. The fiery Kiwis were briefly part of New Zealand's first Cup challenge team in 1987, before Coutts left to return to university.

They know each other well from plenty of encounters on the match-race tour. While Coutts is always at the helm of SUI-64, Dickson wouldn't say whether he or helmsman Peter Holmberg will be at the wheel of USA-76.

He said that decision will be made on a daily basis, a familiar refrain he has echoed since becoming the skipper.

"We know that Alinghi's the top boat. They've won more races than all of us and Russell's the defending champion," Dickson said. "They're going to be very tough. We can just hope that our act is good enough to give them a run for their money on Monday."

Each match is a best-of-seven. The first warning signal is scheduled for 1:05 pm. Tomorrow's forecast calls for southwesterly winds between 16 and 20 knots.
Sean McNeill/ISAF News Editor
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