America's Cup: Alinghi Magic

Once known as Team Magic, Russell Coutts and his Kiwi cohorts have incubated a new Swiss strain of their potion. Their advance to the Louis Vuitton Finals has been marked by just enough speed...

...to finish the job but not so much that their adversaries realized that they never had a chance.At the poker table, a sandbagger holds off raising the stakes to lull other gamblers into a false sense of security. He pounces late in the game, clobbering the rest with his winning hand. In golf, sandbagging is an unspeakable crime--the dubious practice of playing below your ability to create a more favorable personal handicap. In sailing, it's when Alinghi whips Oracle/BMW Racing in the semifinals of the Louis Vuitton Cup while still in third gear. Or so the story went around Auckland last December, when Russell Coutts's new Swiss challenge cruised through to the challenger final. Coutts loves to have a bit of a gamble now and then, especially on the golf course. But could he and his crew have dared to sandbag through the Louis Vuitton Cup? Were they holding back a little speed, throwing in a few unexplained errors and the odd unnecessary tack, so as to lull the other challengers--and Team New Zealand--before pouncing?It was a bit of a backhanded compliment for Alinghi--who were obviously faster than Chris Dickson's Oracle/BMW Racing in the 4-0 series victory, but were trying to steer clear of controversy. At the suggestion that they haven't been going full speed, Alinghi pitman Josh Belsky, a native of Rye, N.Y., smiles and shakes his head."Yeah, you could say it's a bit of a compliment," he says. "From the outside looking in, it may have been perceived as easygoing against Oracle. But it's actually pretty tough out there. I can assure you that by no means are we sitting back and taking an extra-long rest because we've got speed in reserve. We are just doing it at our pace. There's no way we're taking it easy."Nevertheless, New Zealanders are suddenly starting to get a little nervous. Local talk radio shows went crazy the moment Alinghi's billionaire head Ernesto Bertarelli started spraying champagne across the decks of SUI-64, in time to the din of Swiss cowbells ringing from his superyacht Vava. Reality had hit the red-socked and black-shirted home crowd--Alinghi is head and shoulders above its Louis Vuitton competition, and is now the out-and-out favorite to meet Team New Zealand in the America's Cup match--a troop of former Kiwi sailing heroes could steal away the Auld Mug. Talk show hosts started asking the question: how fast is Alinghi, really? If SUI-64 could power past the best of the rest, what could SUI-75 do with its now not-so-secret second skin? Without Coutts and company on its side, does Team New Zealand still have the might to match them? At the end of the semifinals, Alinghi wouldn't attribute its success thus far to a faster boat. Bertarelli, Coutts, and Belsky all put the basic reason as crew work. It was the first time in two years, Coutts said, that the Alinghi afterguard had fallen into place. "It's the first time Murray Jones, Jochen Schuemann, and Brad Butterworth started to work together as a team," says Coutts. "We haven't had many opportunities to sail together--remember that in our in-house racing, Jochen was driving the other boat against me, and we split up Murray and Brad."The situation wasn't helped when Jones broke his foot and missed the first two rounds. "It's taken us a while to get the combination going," Coutts continues, "for the guys to realize what they should say and what they shouldn't say, and get that good communication working."This growing cohesiveness hasn't been limited strictly to the back of the boat either. "Our afterguard is so strong," says Belsky, "but the rest of the crew has gelled nicely now too. It wasn't easy to start with--we had guys from everywhere. There were the guys from Team New Zealand and then there were others from teams who hadn't experienced that sensation of winning the America's Cup. Everyone speaks of the Kiwi connection, like Simon Daubney and Warwick Fleury, but there are 20 other strong guys on our boats contributing easily as much."And no one can discount the skill of Coutts, the master of match racing himself. Behind the wheel against Oracle/BMW Racing, he didn't win all of the starts against Oracle’s pre-start star Peter Holmberg and old nemesis Dickson. But Coutts always managed to maneuver SUI-64 to whichever end of the starting line he wanted, with the confidence of knowing his ride had extra speed to make up lost ground. In every race, Alinghi led at the first cross. It's not just Coutts's attitude on the water that’s impressed his team. Belsky, a veteran of three America's Cups, believes Alinghi got to the Louis Vuitton Cup final by keeping its focus on the Hauraki Gulf--not the protest room, or the press conference stage."In my mind, the strongest thing about Alinghi so far is the way Russell and Ernesto have kept their heads down, out of the media spotlight and away from all the controversies," says Belsky. "I have sailed a lot against Russell and Brad and the Kiwi guys, and I used to think their attitude was arrogant. But now I realize they’re not concerned with all the bravado. I love it."It's the same attitude the late Sir Peter Blake and Coutts maintained at Team New Zealand for eight winning years--and not the only Kiwi trait evident in this Swiss team. "I've worked in quite a few teams, predominantly American," says Belsky, "where there was a hierarchical tier. Here no job is too small or too big for anybody. The open door policy has produced some pretty clever ideas from people you wouldn't expect. There's a lot of political aligning in other teams on the street, but here it's not a crime to open your mouth and suggest ideas. And you can do so without fear of being demoted." But you still can't ignore Alinghi's speed. The statistics from the major semifinal clash are telling: Alinghi won the four matches by an average of 48.5 seconds, and lost only 90 seconds on individual legs throughout the series. The Swiss led at 14 of 18 marks and at every first cross.And yet the day after the clean-sweep of Oracle in the semis, only hours after the party celebrations at the big pink shed wrapped up, and with three weeks to go to the final, the Alinghi crew were back out on the gulf, testing. Within hours it was revealed what they were testing so doggedly--and what Team New Zealand had been hiding so persistently beneath those Victorian skirts. Call it "Russell's Bustle," the "Kiwi Clip-on," or a false bottom. But suddenly the appendage that no public eye had seen was being hailed as one of the greatest design revolutions in the Cup's 151-year history--even though it had yet to be used in a race. Coutts has no doubt that the second skin concept--classified as an appendage under the measurement rules, it adds waterline length beneath the stern but doesn't affect the measurement data for the hull--is fast, though he doubts whether the loophole in the rule interpretation which allowed this innovation will still exist after this America's Cup. Suspicions that Alinghi’s bustle was a copy-cat version of Team New Zealand's secret appendage, followed by Team New Zealand's "query" over the protocol wording--questioning whether a team can switch yachts between the semifinals and the finals of the Louis Vuitton Cup--which could stop Alinghi from ever racing the untried SUI-75, added a little more spice to the growing anticipation of a Coutts-Dean Barker clash."I think Team New Zealand is going to be very fast, and we respect Team New Zealand greatly," says Bertarelli. "I don't think they will be shy on talent or speed. However, at the moment we are not very interested in them and we are just doing our own work. My wish would be that, given the advantages Team New Zealand already has--being able to wait and watch racing and therefore have more time to prepare, more time to sail--that they will confine themselves to making sure they are faster on the water, and make sure they keep the competition on the water. I think that's the best thing anyone here can wish for the Cup."Despite all the hype around Alinghi, Oracle/BMW Racing was by no means about to give up. Dickson stuck with the tried and true USA-76 for the semifinal repechage with OneWorld, after finding out a little more about it against Alinghi."Alinghi sailed very well and certainly we felt a little punished," he said after being swept out of the semifinals. "But we learned a lot from them and a lot about our own boat. We're in a strong position to move forward. I'm confident we have the ability to keep getting stronger," he said. OneWorld spoke with similar conviction after its sudden-death semifinal victory over Prada (3-2). But it was a syndicate still smarting from the one-point-a-round penalty it had to carry into the repechage.No one, however, was hurting more than Prada, the defending Louis Vuitton Cup champion, whose 2002 campaign was a nightmare. As Aucklanders lined the seawalls to bid farewell to their favorite foreigners, it all seemed too bizarre. Prada--a team rich in time, resources, and experience--was heading home, even though it had just won its last race by almost 18 minutes. Time and weather--numerous postponements pushed the Italians into a situation where they needed to sail and win two races on the windless final day of the semifinals--had finally crushed the Italians dream of a repeat Cup engagement. The Italians, however, knew they could only blame themselves for their unexpected demise. It was a campaign injured by disharmony, rumors, and disappointing crew work. According to Prada tactician Torben Grael, the team never fully recovered from its poor start, a 4-4 record in the first round robin. "We spent a lot of effort trying to make the boat better after this period and that was time we lost on the water practicing, maneuvering in tight situations," he says. "Maybe we paid for that."