As the America's Cup community quickly, and somewhat pitilessly, put the sinking of oneAustralia 95 behind it last week, the field was reduced from 10 hopefuls to seven: four international challengers and three U.S. defenders. The yachts in the challenger fleet that were eliminated after four rounds of racing—France3, Rioja de España and Sydney '95—packed their sails and went home. They were poorer, probably no wiser, but able to look their backers in the eye and say, "At least no one was killed."
That may change, incidentally. French skipper Marc Pajot could be lynched by the French tabloids, having spent $33 million—$14 million of it public funds—on a campaign that careened on two wheels from Day One, when a crane dropped a spanking new French yacht, France2, onto the pavement in the French compound, forcing the keel strut through the boat's deck. That set the campaign back by three weeks and half a million dollars. Before it was all over, both France2 and its successor, France3, proved slow; France3's mast broke in half while it was leading a pivotal race, and two sailors fell overboard. "The French press has been very...severe," a shaken Pajot said while bidding adieu last Friday. It was reliably reported he was returning to Paris by way of Borneo and Fiji.
So Europe has been eliminated, and the four remaining challengers are all from the Pacific. The strongest of these syndicates, by far, is Team New Zealand, whose Black Magic 2, with Russell Coutts as skipper, is undefeated on the water in 24 races. (The team did lose one race due to protest when, contrary to the rules, it sent a man aloft to scan the horizon for signs of wind.) The weakest is Japan's entry, Nippon, which had an 11-13 record through the first four rounds. The other two challengers—oneAustralia, sailing its second-string boat, and TAG Heuer, a second New Zealand syndicate, headed by Chris Dickson—are seen as evenly matched, a notch below Team New Zealand.
The oneAustralia group, whose flagship yacht on March 5 became the first America's Cup boat in 144 years to sink during a race, enjoyed only a brief grace period before the humorists had at it. Two days after the disaster, one of Team New Zealand's primary sponsors, Steinlager beer, came up with a new slogan in a full-page newspaper ad: "There's one thing that goes down faster than an Australian yacht...Steinlager."
Glub, glub. That was just the beginning. OneAustralia jokes began appearing last week like garbage floating in with the tide.
DNF (did not finish), oneAustralia 95's official result the day of the catastrophe, now stood for Did Not Float.
"Why do the Kiwis have a glass-bottomed boat?" one wag inquired. "So they can keep an eye on oneAustralia."
The company that designed oneAustralia 95, Fluid Thinking, had its name changed to Fluid Sinking.
The unsympathetic tenor of this drollery was fueled by the dreaded three-boat controversy, at the center of which was the yacht now 83 fathoms down. It is a long and convoluted story, which we will try to boil down to its essence: The Australians, their opponents claim, cheated by building too many boats.
After the excessive spending of the last America's Cup competition, in 1992—Bill Koch built four boats at a cost of some $68 million, ultimately successfully defending the Cup in America³—the powers-that-be decreed that no syndicate could build more than two yachts for the 1995 campaign. The Australians, however, appeared to circumvent the spirit of this rule by having their two syndicates work in concert. Fluid Sinking, er, Thinking, designed one yacht for Sydney '95 and a second for oneAustralia, the syndicate headed by 1983 America's Cup winner John Bertrand. Then those boats were tested against each other to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Using this information, the Aussies designed a third yacht, the one that sank, for Bertrand's group. In December an international jury exonerated the Australians of wrongdoing, but the rules will be rewritten before the next America's Cup, and some believe, the accident was evidence that God is a fair-minded skipper.