America's Cup hopefuls face off in challenger series

Auckland (AFP) –


Years of design innovations and fine-tuning will be put to the test Friday when the quest for the America's Cup begins in Auckland with the regatta's three-team challenger series.

The winner of the series, known as the Prada Cup, earns the right to race defending champion Team New Zealand for yachting's most prestigious trophy.

Among the contenders is American Magic, backed by the New York Yacht Club, which held the Auld Mug from 1851 to 1983, the longest winning streak in sporting history.

American Magic sailor Andrew Campbell said the NYYC boat's crew was determined to honour that legacy by defeating the other two challengers, Italy's Luna Rossa and Ben Ainslie's INEOS Team UK.

That would give them the chance to beat Team NZ and reclaim the trophy after 38 years.

"I'm here to win this regatta and win the America's Cup," Campbell said.

But the 23-metre (75-foot) "flying" yachts contesting this year's regatta are a world away from the traditional vessels that dominated when the NYYC last held the trophy.

Able to reach 50 knots balanced mid-air on carbon fibre arms, or foils, that lift the hull out of the water, they are shaped more by aerodynamics than conventional nautical design.

So much so that Campbell's official title with American Magic is flight controller, making him responsible for getting the yacht up on its foils and keeping it there in all wind conditions.

"Stepping on the 75-footer is a bit of a shock -- it's a big lumbering piece of equipment and once it gets going it has a lot of inertia and a lot of momentum," he said.

"There are plenty of ways for it to go wrong."

- '170 years of hurt' -

The potential for disaster was illustrated when Team NZ capsized during a practice race in Auckland harbour this week, nosediving into the water after a mistimed gybe.

No one was hurt and the boat was undamaged, with Kiwi helmsman Peter Burling saying the huge AC75 monohulls were more durable than the foiling catamarans used at the last regatta in Bermuda in 2017.

"If you'd done that same kind of manoeuvre on the cat in Bermuda, you'd be in hundreds of pieces," he said.

"Full credit to the design of these boats that they are still in one piece."

Despite the mishap, Team NZ remain favourites to retain the America's Cup after performing strongly in warm-up races before Christmas.

American Magic was the leading challenger, with Luna Rossa not far behind and INEOS Team UK struggling to overcome technical problems.

The Britons, led by four-time Olympic champion Ainslie, conceded they were off the pace but have since worked tirelessly to improve and are confident they can compete.

"Britain obviously has a very proud maritime heritage and we've won just about everything else in sport but the America's Cup is the one thing we've never won," Ainslie said.

"That kind of hurts and it's 170-odd years of hurt, so that's what motivates us."

The Prada Cup has 17 race days from January 15-February 22, beginning with a series of round-robins.

The winner proceeds to the final, while the other two challengers face off in a seven-race semi-final.

The final begins on February 13 and is a best-of-13 contest, with the first yacht to win seven races victorious.

The winner then faces Team NZ from March 6-21 to compete for the main prize.