|Thursday, February 27
Team New Zealand withdraws from another race
ESPN.com news services
AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- Team New Zealand's mast came down with a groan and a crack, the latest America's Cup nightmare for a sailing crew that used to be perfect.
The two-time defending champion Kiwis were knocked out of Race 4 on Friday when their 110-foot carbon-fiber mast snapped in two during a squall and fell into the rough Hauraki Gulf.
Alinghi of Switzerland, which led from the start, sailed alone around the rest of the six-leg, 18.5-nautical mile course to take a 4-0 lead in the best-of-nine series. Alinghi needs one more win to take the America's Cup back to Europe for the first time in 152 years, and to a landlocked country at that.
The Swiss could make history as early as Saturday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET, Fri.), when Race 5 is scheduled. The Kiwis planned to replace the broken mast with the one from their backup boat and be ready by Saturday.
The Kiwis won the last two America's Cup matches -- both by 5-0 sweeps -- with design breakthroughs, but they have been knocked out of two of the four races in this cup because of breakdowns. A boat that was thought to be fast this time because of a radical hull appendage called a "hula'' has instead fallen apart twice in front of a shocked nation.
"We just have to take this on the chin again and move on,'' skipper Dean Barker said. "We're running out of things to break.''
Sailing the upwind third leg in heavy seas left over from two days of gale-force wind, the 80-foot carbon-fiber NZL-82 buried its bow into two successive waves less than halfway through the race. America's Cup sloops are under tremendous loads, and as NZL-82 came out of the second wave, the $500,000 mast broke about 30 feet above the deck and dragged the rigging over the left side of the boat.
Three sailors were knocked overboard, but they clung to the wreckage and were pulled back on board.
Barker called to crewmen to save themselves before they thought of the boat.
Syndicate head Tom Schnackenberg said a fitting broke in the rigging about 40 feet above the deck, basically stripping away support for the one-ton spar.
"When I saw the boat hit those two waves, I thought, 'Oh my God, something's got to give,' and something did,'' Schnackenberg said.
Strategist Adam Beashel warned Barker that some big waves were coming up.
"We weren't doing anything differently or it wasn't like we were thrashing the boat,'' Barker said. "The fitting just let go.''
With a great deal of cursing, it took the crew several minutes to secure the rigging and use knives to cut away the mainsail, which is as big as a Boeing 747 wing.
The crippled yacht was towed back into port with the top of the mast still sticking into the water at an odd angle. A saw was brought on board and a crewman began cutting into the tangle of wires.
In Race 1 on Feb. 15, the black boat began taking on water in choppy seas, and the stress on the boat led to gear failure that forced the Kiwis out of the race just 25 minutes after the start.
The Kiwis' boat took on water again Friday, even though they had placed plastic panels over the rails at the back of the boat. Not long before the mast shattered, a support strip on the mainsail broke loose and was flapping in the strong breeze. The mainsail began to bubble and flap, losing its aerodynamic shape, suggesting a serious rigging problem.
Team New Zealand snapped two masts during training last year.
Race 4 had been delayed six times over the previous nine days, and Friday's conditions were the heaviest so far in the regatta. The wind was 19 knots at the start, with gusts up to 26.
Alinghi was leading by about three lengths when the Kiwi mast came down.
"We are sorry for the sailors onboard NZL-82 today,'' said Jochen Schuemann, Alinghi's German-born strategist. "A dismasting is certainly one of the worst things that can happen in a race. Team New Zealand has bet a lot on their technology and either they pushed this card too far, or they didn't have enough time to test their findings.''
Alinghi's New Zealand-born skipper, Russell Coutts, extended his record by winning his 13th straight race in the America's Cup match. He led Team New Zealand to its landmark win over Dennis Conner off San Diego in 1995 and its successful defense against Italy's Prada Challenge in 2000. Two months later, he and several of his top mates jumped ship to Alinghi for bigger paychecks.
Two other foreign syndicates plundered Team New Zealand for sailing and design talent, and only a handful of Kiwi crewmen remain from the 2000 team.