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Paul Cayard, the mustachioed 31-year-old American helmsman of the Italian maxi boat Passage to Venice, screamed to be heard by his crew above howling 25-knot winds and crashing eight-foot seas: "Ammainare lo spi!" Jumping to action, Passage's 23-member team executed a perfect spinnaker drop while Cayard glanced over his shoulder to get a fix on his nearest threats, Matador� of the U.S. and Longobarda of Italy. Both were a comfortable four boat lengths behind Passage. With only two races to go in the 21-race 1990 Maxi World Championship series, Passage and Matador� were deadlocked in the point standings. A win on this December day would put Passage in the catbird seat.
As Cayard's 80-foot, 40-ton maxi gracefully rounded the inflatable orange marker and headed to windward off St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, disaster struck. An experimental carbon-fiber-headboard car—a device that secures the mainsail to the top of the mast—shattered. The light brown Kevlar main fluttered to the deck. Passage had lost her engine.
Stefano Maida scrambled up the mast to repair the damage. As he swayed violently atop the 120-foot metronome, Matador� and Longobarda passed the limping Passage. By the time the mainsail was fixed, Matador� had won. The next day, Matador� squeezed past Passage again to win a 75-mile distance race and clinch the world championship.
"To break down, especially when you're winning," said Cayard, "is like Ayrton Senna being 10 laps up and blowing out a tire. You might be the best driver out there, but there's nothing you can do about it." Passage's mishap was worth a possible swing of five points: She ended up losing the world title to Matador� by a mere 4.25 points.
Maxis are the largest, fastest and most powerful offshore racing sailboats. The class consistently attracts elite sailors from around the globe. Behind every wheel, or within spitting distance of the cockpit, was an America's Cup veteran: Dennis Conner and Rives Potts led the French yacht Emeraude; John Bertrand, Tom Whidden, John Marshall and Jon Wright sailed Longobarda; John Kolius and Peter Stalkus piloted Vanitas, another Italian entry; Dave Vietor was aboard the U.S. maxi Congere; and Cayard and Adam Ostenfeld sailed Passage.
Sadly absent was Kialoa V and her owner, Jim Kilroy. Friends said Kilroy had exchanged his racing sails for cruising rags. "Jim started this whole maxi game over a decade ago," said a sailor who has crewed for Kilroy nearly as long. "When it began to accelerate and change, he decided to sit back and watch."
The world championship was sailed in three separate regattas, each consisting of seven races. The series started in Newport last September, moved to Miami in late October and, as noted, concluded in St. Thomas. The regatta was the last chance for America's Cup skippers, crews, designers and syndicate heavies to butt heads before dedicating the next 17 months exclusively to preparations for the 1992 Cup races in San Diego.
The consensus after St. Thomas was that Bill Koch's Matador� is, as FBI agent Dale Cooper might say, one damn fine maxi. She showed blazing speed both upwind and down, whether it was blowing eight knots or 28. Koch's whopping $7 million investment—the boat itself cost approximately $2 million, the rest went into research and development, which will be amortized over Koch's upcoming America's Cup campaign—has apparently paid off.
Koch, sailing an earlier Matador, had been a bridesmaid in the last four world championships. The 1990 world championship was the newest version's maiden regatta, and she won impressively. "The boat is major league fast," said Vanitas navigator Stalkus, a two-time America's Cup veteran. In Newport, Matador� placed lower than first only once. It wasn't long, however, before the other six maxis realized that to have a chance at winning, they would have to gang up on Matador�.
"The racing got harder for us after Newport," said Gary Jobson, tactician and part-time helmsman for Matador�. "We didn't have too many friends out there. Before every start, two boats would circle us while a third waited nearby to come in for the kill."