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Sunday, September 29, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sailing

America's Cup: Seattle's OneWorld crew ready to make a splash

Seattle Times staff columnist

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Down by the bottom of the Earth, on the eve of the battle for the world's most coveted sailing trophy, Dick Johnson of Normandy Park is waving an American flag, riding in a parade on the back of a vintage red Mustang convertible and sitting on a small secret.

Johnson, vice commodore of the Seattle Yacht Club, will be the honorary "17th man" aboard the racing boat owned by Eastside tycoon Craig McCaw when it begins its pursuit of the America's Cup on Tuesday (Monday in Seattle) in Auckland, the self-proclaimed City of Sails.

Surely, it's got to be every yacht-club commodore's dream gig.

"Actually," Johnson says, drawing closer to be heard over the din of several marching bands and tens of thousands of screeching Kiwis, "I'm pretty much a power-boat guy myself."

Nonetheless, he takes Seattle's sailing flag to where some of the world's richest men have lined up to sink three-quarters of a billion dollars into sleek, high-tech boats with two unique traits: They basically go nowhere, and take their time getting there.

Laugh it off as ludicrous if you will, but realize that the butt of your joke may no longer be an overzealous Aussie or quirky Californian: As of Tuesday morning Down Under, when nine boats from six nations set sail, the 151-year-old quest for the America's Cup will be pursued officially in the name of Seattle.

Should they defy long odds of snatching the Cup on a first attempt, McCaw's OneWorld syndicate and the Seattle Yacht Club would bring the fabled silver trophy home to the Seattle Yacht Club at Montlake — and control where the Cup's next defense would be. While Seattle is a problematic venue (boats would need to be towed to Admiralty Inlet or the Strait of Juan de Fuca for sufficient winds), it's not impossible.

There is no doubt the Cup can be a major economic power boost. At the opening ceremony in Auckland this weekend, a government official described the America's Cup as no less than the country's "No. 1 growth industry" — producing $650 million (NZ) in revenue in 2000, and perhaps up to $1 billion (NZ) this year. (One U.S. dollar equals about two New Zealand dollars.)

No more.

When the big trophy arrived in 1995, development began in small ripples around Team New Zealand's waterfront boat shed. Today, it has spread completely across Viaduct Basin, a thriving, attractive commercial/tourist district with the open-air feel of Sydney's Darling Harbor in Australia.

These days, Viaduct Basin is a warm, inviting international village, where you're likely to hear Italian, French, Japanese, Portuguese — and good old Ballard Norwegian American English — all spoken at adjacent tables in open-air cafes pumping out eggs Benedict each warm, moist spring morning.

A lot of those people are talking boat racing, and the average Seattleite would be hard-pressed to hold up one end of the conversation. The Emerald City has an intense love affair with boating, but let's face it: A lot of us wouldn't know a jibe from a bribe — both of which, historically, have proven to be important America's Cup tactical maneuvers.

Ocean aficionado McCaw, like many a wealthy man before him with time on his hands, money to burn and passions to grasp, paid a visit to New Zealand in 2000 to sail as the 17th man on a Team New Zealand boat. He became so enamored with the Kiwis, the event and the clean, green Hauraki Gulf that he promptly donated $1 million to New Zealand's Cup defense.

The races


Every three to five years, teams from around the world compete in the Super Bowl of sailing, the America's Cup. Tomorrow, the Louis Vuitton Cup, the prelude to the America's Cup, begins in the waters off New Zealand. The winner will face the defending champions from New Zealand in February for the America's Cup.
Shortly thereafter, his interest piqued, McCaw launched OneWorld, his own $75 million bid for the next Cup — later rescued somewhat, when tech stocks hit the skids, with a $10 million contribution from fellow Eastside billionaire Paul Allen.

It seemed a natural fit: McCaw would sail boats in a race beamed around the globe, specifically to promote "environmental stewardship." Mixing the best of old and new Seattle — a stodgy, saltwater-in-the-veins maritime past and a big-stakes, high-tech present — he would hire the best sailors, designers, navigators and tacticians to mount a uniquely international challenge in an event that has always been known for flag-waving, fist-pounding, lawyer-hiring nationalism.

OneWorld's boats, designed by a team headed by noted Kiwi engineer Laurie Davidson, were built in Sedro-Woolley, shipped to New Zealand and honed over months of match racing against one another on the blustery Hauraki Gulf. They're among the most tech-tested watercraft ever to set sail, with a crew considered to be in a league with the best on the water. OneWorld is skippered by Aussie Peter Gilmour and manned by sailors from seven nations — including talented former members of defending Cup champion Team New Zealand.

"Seattle is our hometown; we sail under the U.S. flag," says Gilmour, who is competing in his fifth Cup. "But we also respect (McCaw's) vision: We live in a global-village place now. So why not have a camp that's representative of a lot of the great sailing nations in the world?"

Truthfully, all of this seemed for a long time like another rich man's pipe dream; a Down Under space shot by the guy who heard all those children's cries to "Free Willy!" — and did it. No one expected the race to attract much attention in Seattle until at least Tuesday's start of the Louis Vuitton Cup, the four-month regatta that produces a single challenger for the February America's Cup final against the powerhouse Kiwis.

Ranking the boats is folly, of course, at least until late October, when all nine challengers have raced one another multiple times and a pecking order begins to emerge. Even then, the protracted format gives teams time to insert new parts or even new boats, change crew and tactics, and reinvent themselves in time to pull ahead of the pack.

But win or lose, OneWorld is likely to produce an entire new generation of Seattle-area America's Cup fans — all of whom will be able to follow racing and the circus that often surrounds it daily in the newspaper or on TV, or this time out, in real time online.

The America's Cup today is, as it has been since its origins 151 years hence, a delightful amalgamation of the sublime (the pursuit of science) and the ridiculous (the people pursuing it). Consider, if you will, the big picture unfolding around Viaduct Basin this week:

• In a world where lots of people still starve, more than $700 million likely has been invested in this year's challenger cup — sponsored by, and named after, the patron saint of oddly styled luggage, its corporate sponsor. The Louis Vuitton Cup winner goes on to challenge New Zealand for the coveted America's Cup, a 27-inch-high, bottomless silver trophy that looks like a cross between a home-shopping-network tea service and a collegiate bowling trophy.

• One of this year's combatants for this grand seafarer's prize — a current betting favorite to win the Vuitton Cup and all the handbags that come with it — is Team Alinghi. They're from Switzerland, which, the last time anyone checked, was a landlocked nation with nary a seaport from which to hold a defense.

• More than two dozen members of victorious Team New Zealand jumped ship after the 2000 Cup, signing in many cases large professional contracts to sail for competing teams. Team New Zealand's emblazoned motto for the current Cup defense? "Loyal."

• Vincenzo Onorato, the head of another challenging syndicate, Mascalzone Latino of Italy, conducted a news conference this week to announce that his team was in place, pumped up and ready to pursue its goal of not winning the America's Cup. They've come to learn and have fun, not necessarily in any order — then come back to win the Cup at a later, more convenient time.

This has always been an irresistibly goofy, contentious pursuit, with as much time spent bickering over rules and equipment as actual racing. (If nothing else, it could be argued it should continue to exist just so competitors can use the artful term "skullduggery" to describe opponents' shifty behavior.)

But the event continues to spark the world's imagination because of its essence: man's ongoing attempt to master the forces of gravity and resistance, traveling long distances purely by riding the wind. For some reason, even in the Space Age, the proper design, rigging and trimming of sailing craft remain a timeless, romantic pursuit — one pushed to illogical extremes by computer-aided design, tank testing and, in the case of OneWorld, wireless LAN technology.

Fittingly, the boats owned by McCaw and Allen have undergone a unique testing program here, in which hundreds of wind- and water-testing parameters have been fed, real time, from onboard sensors into computers via a wireless network McCaw happens to own.

Still, part of the magic, the skipper Gilmour reminds us, is the fact that the ocean does not give a rip about one's choice of operating system. The race course for the America's Cup remains every bit a wild environment. Millions of dollars worth of computer modeling will do little to keep a nasty chunk of kelp from wrapping itself around your keel and ruining your entire day.

The human element adds another wild card. No software or hardware can crank up a sail with the efficiency of OneWorld grinder Andrew "Meat" Taylor, one of the purloined Kiwis in the "engine room" of the Seattle-based boat. An America's Cup boat, at full sail in a tight race, can be poetry afloat, with a crew working in a rhythm bordering on symphonic. Or, a miscue here and there can leave you with a carbon-fiber hull snapped in half and your boat sinking like a rock. Either way, with remote cameras now mounted on the boats themselves, it can make for sweet TV.

OneWorld's boats are deep blue, but the message is pure green: McCaw actually asked its engineers to calculate how much oxygen would be consumed, over the several months of racing, by the outboard motors on syndicate chase boats. The syndicate then planted 10,000 trees around Hauraki Gulf to supply the difference in oxygen.

That kind of action has gone a long way to diffuse the hometown scorn that initially greeted the OneWorld syndicate in Auckland. First, the Seattle group stole away key members of the Kiwi team. Then it was accused by one of its early employees, Sean Reeves, of stealing crucial Team New Zealand design secrets.

Still, OneWorld was penalized one point in the initial round-robin phase of the Vuitton Cup for a rules violation. That's like starting with one loss on the books — putting OneWorld in a hole before the first start flag is raised. OneWorld has admitted it made technical-rules violations and vows to use the penalty as a motivator.

This contrition has been received positively by Kiwis, thousands of whom gave the OneWorld team, and other American syndicates, a polite reception in the parade through downtown Auckland this weekend.

But don't expect the same kind of neighborliness from OneWorld's competitors. The Seattle squad's green ethic is likely to gag Larry Ellison, Oracle's CEO and backer of the California racing syndicate. He has publicly scoffed at do-gooder billionaires professing to do what they do for a cause other than their own gratification — which only makes racing between his Silicon Valley/Oracle crew and the Microsoft-flavored Seattle contingent even more alluring.

You can almost feel OneWorld champing at the bit for it. A mix of young, old and universally successful sailors — which includes Seattle Olympic medalists Jonathan and Charlie McKee — are here to win. And so are their relatively camera-shy, but nonetheless competitive, syndicate owners.

Being green, friendly and collegial is one thing. Losing the oldest trophy in international sport to the rival tech guy is another. The bottom line: In the grand and sullied history of the Cup, no one has invested a small fortune for any reason other than to embrace that big, silly trophy as his own.

Someone soon will. It's springtime in Auckland, and the Cup is back on.

Tuesday in New Zealand, weather permitting, Dick Johnson, the Seattle Yacht Club's closet powerboat commodore, will get an education in big-time sailboat racing — and lots of folks back home will vicariously go along with him.

The Seattle Yacht Club, Johnson confesses — pondering the improbable but no longer impossible — probably doesn't even have a suitable place to display that big, ungainly Cup.

No worries there.

"We'll make room for it," he says as the parade procession begins to move and the trophy New Zealand's newspapers refer to as "our America's Cup" is paraded through the streets of Auckland.

Even in the idyllic global village envisioned by McCaw, somebody's got to look after the good silver.

Ron C. Judd: 206-464-8280 or rjudd@seattletimes.com.

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