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12 April 2005, 09:56 am
COUTTS Heads Congressional Cup
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Congressional Cup 2005
Long Beach, Ca. USA

Three-time America's Cup winner Russell COUTTS (NZL) will meet old colleagues and new rivals in the 41st edition of the ISAF Grade 1 Congressional Cup, where racing starts today.
For now, COUTTS is effectively barred from America's Cup competition by terms of his recent settlement with Alinghi boss Ernesto BERTARELLI. However, Chris DICKSON (NZL) of BMW Oracle, Dean BARKER (NZL) of Emirates Team New Zealand, Philippe PRESTI (FRA) of Le Defí 2007 and the Team Shosholoza sailors from South Africa crewing for the veteran Chris LAW (GBR) have their long-range sights set on Valencia in 2007.

BARKER won the Congressional Cup in 2000, a few weeks after COUTTS handed him the helm for the clinching race against Prada at Auckland. They enjoyed an amicable private reunion Monday morning when COUTTS arrived, exchanging old memories and current events.

COUTTS said later of his new lifestyle, 'My wife says I'm more relaxed. It's funny, but for two weeks I wondered what I was going to do, and now I'm just full up with options. I'm at least as busy as I ever was. Life's good.'

COUTTS, who won and defended the America's Cup for New Zealand, then won it again for Alinghi of Switzerland, now races with Jes GRAM-HANSEN's Danish crew. COUTTS is ranked at number nine in the ISAF World Match Race Rankings with three victories and two second places to his name within the last twelve months. Ed BAIRD (USA), ISAF World Match Race Rankings number one and COUTTS's possible successor at the Alinghi helm, won here last year but is not defending his title because of commitments to his America's Cup team. BAIRD has held the top spot in the rankings since July 2004 and has been in dominant form recently winning the ISAF Grade 1 Marseille International Match Race.

However with the American not in California to defend his title, COUTTS and the other highly ranked sailors in the field, including ISAF World Match Race Rankings' number four, Mathieu RICHARD (FRA), have to perfect opportunity to make up some ground on the number one spot.

COUTTS has raced in the Congressional Cup three times, in 1990, 1991 and 1992. In 1990 and 1991 his fellow New Zealander and competitor this year, Chris DICKSON, took the Cup and in 1992 Terry HUTCHINSON (USA) won although COUTTS went on to win the ISAF Match Racing World Championship in the same Catalina 37s.

DICKSON, 42, has been trying to win the America's Cup for nearly 20 years. Now CEO and skipper for Larry ELLISON's San Francisco team, he will be competing against his kid brother, Scott DICKSON (USA). Scott, a longtime Long Beach resident, has once again won the right to represent the host club in his ninth Congressional Cup by winning the Ficker Cup sail off last September.

'There are ten teams in this regatta,' Chris DICKSON said. 'We're one of them; Scotty's one of them. Our objective this week is to win, and to win we've got to make the semi finals, and to make the semi finals we're going to be after as many wins as we can possibly get. Every point counts the same, whether it's your brother or not.'

Scott DICKSON's response: 'What he said.'

They last faced off in the New Zealand Match Racing Championship, with Chris on top, although not the overall winner.

There also are some less familiar but formidable threats. While most of those above have been concentrating on America's Cup campaigns, these have been building their resúmés and international rankings in frequent match race regattas: Staffan LINDBERG (number seven in the ISAF World Match Race Rankings) of Finland, Denmark's Lars NORDBJERG (number ten) and Frenchmen Philippe PRESTI (number eight) and Mathieu RICHARD.

The only American entry, barring Long Beach's DICKSON, is veteran Chris LARSON of Annapolis, who is stepping up to the wheel after calling tactics for Gavin BRADY (NZL) and Terry HUTCHINSON (USA) the last two years. BRADY is not competing, but HUTCHINSON will call tactics for BARKER.

LARSON recalled last year with HUTCHINSON when they rounded the last mark of the championship race with a 34-second lead over BAIRD, did a routine bear-away spinnaker set and, sailed into a wind hole as BAIRD went the other way to win.

'I still haven't seen the video but everybody says it was hilarious,' LARSON said. 'We unfortunately did what you normally do. I don't think anyone ever jibe-sets around the weather mark in any condition for any reason. He just reached back offshore and took the great circle route to the finish. That's when too big a lead is detrimental.'

This year the winner will be sorted out over five days of a double round-robin, followed by best-of-three semi finals and finals. The ten teams will rotate boats over a short windward-leeward course set next to the city's Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier, where sailing is truly a spectator sport.

After a three-year involvement the Congressional Cup is no longer part of the Swedish Match Tour. As the new presenting sponsor, Acura will raise the purse to $40,000, up from $25,000 last year.

The winner will receive the traditional Crimson Blazer that has been worn by America's Cup winners Dennis CONNER (USA), Bill FICKER (USA), Ted TURNER (USA) and BARKER.

LAW, who won in 1994, has been training the South African team, whose sailors are skilled in ocean racing but short on match racing experience, including designated helmsman Ian AINSLIE.

Asked about his match racing background, AINSLIE, 39, replied candidly: 'None, more or less. I crewed for Chris [LAW] last year in Denmark. We've been doing it at home in two small keelboats, but it's much better for us to learn faster against the very good guys . . . jump in the deep end. We'll be doing four regattas over the next months on the Swedish Match Tour. It will be a big learning curve.'

AINSLIE said that LAW's advice has included 'not to be too aggressive. His philosophy is to keep away from other boats because if there is a collision you can get a penalty against you even if you're correct.'

Those penalties would be inflicted by a world-class array of on-water umpires in the event where the method of officiating was introduced in the late 1980s. Chief umpire is Gerard BOSSE of France.

The principal race officer is Mike VAN DYKE, who said the 1600 deadline for starting races on the last day has been lifted to avoid a repeat of last year's one-race, sudden death championship final. Dealing with fickle winds, the race committee ran out of time.

'We're going to do whatever we need to do to get it done properly,' VAN DYKE said.

The weather outlook is a bit uncertain with winds light to moderate early in the week but perhaps strengthening later.

Skippers and ISAF World Match Race Ranking

Chris LARSON (USA), 260
Chris DICKSON (NZL), 119
Dean BARKER (NZL), 91
Chris LAW (GBR), 54
Scott DICKSON (USA), 34
Lars NORDBJERG (DEN), 10
Russell COUTTS (NZL), 9
Philippe PRESTI (FRA), 8
Staffan LINDBERG (FIN), 7
Mathieu RICHARD (FRA), 4

Rich Roberts (As Amended By ISAF). Image, Chris DICKSON checks up on his younger brother Scott:© Event Media
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