Race 1 of America's Cup postponed again

VALENCIA, Spain -- If Valencia is indeed the right place to contest the America's Cup, it's looking more and more like February isn't exactly the right time to do it.

Race 1 of the most contentious America's Cup in 159 years was postponed again on Wednesday, this time because of big waves on the Mediterranean Sea.

The giant carbon-fiber multihulls USA and Alinghi 5 didn't even leave the docks. Principal race officer Harold Bennett decided just before noon that waves of between 4 and 6 feet whipped up by overnight winds made it unsafe to send the big boats some 24 miles offshore to start the race.

Race organizers will try again on Friday to get in the first race of the nautical grudge match between American challenger BMW Oracle Racing and two-time defending champion Alinghi of Switzerland.

On Monday, the boats idled for four hours in light, unsteady wind at the starting line before the race was called off.

Bennett said there's still a learning curve with the 90-by-90-foot monsters, which are the most technologically advanced sailboats ever built for the America's Cup.

The problem wasn't the wind of 17 to 18 knots, Bennett said. He was concerned with cross-seas formed when a swell from the northeast left over from overnight winds collided with waves whipped up by a west wind, leaving some areas with conditions similar to inside a washing machine.

"Conditions like today, well, that's interesting. I'm not sure that they would have done too well with it," Bennett said. "Safety's always there. The last thing you want to see happen is one of these boats break something that's going to hurt somebody, or even make it not finish. We've got to weigh all that up as well."

Alinghi agreed with Bennett's decision.

"We've been out in conditions not quite that bad, but it's heinous," Alinghi strategist Murray Jones said. "I think they've done the right thing by not sending us out there."

These enormous boats are under tremendous loads, and sailing them in big waves can lead to breakdowns.

"This whole boat, we refer to it sometimes as a house of cards, because there's so many pieces to it," Alinghi design team member Dirk Kramers said. "If one single part fails, the whole thing could come down."

In 2003, Race 4 of the America's Cup match between Alinghi and Team New Zealand was delayed six times over nine days, due to either too much or too little wind on New Zealand's Hauraki Gulf.

When the race finally got under way, Team New Zealand's 110-foot mast snapped in two and tumbled into the gulf moments after the 80-foot sloop buried its bow into two successive waves. Three sailors were knocked overboard, but they clung to the wrecked rigging and were pulled back on board.

BMW Oracle Racing seemed to think Wednesday's conditions were marginal, and skipper Jimmy Spithill believed the two teams missed an early opportunity to get out.

"We were keen to go. Ten o'clock was the window," said Spithill, who added that the syndicate respected Bennett's decision.

However, organizers had announced Tuesday night that the race wouldn't begin before 11:54 a.m.

Spithill also said the Americans sailed in bigger waves during sea trials in San Diego before relocating to Valencia.

This is the first time the America's Cup has been contested in the Northern Hemisphere in winter, a byproduct of both a bitter court fight between two of the world's richest men and the two sides' inability to agree on anything outside of the courtroom.

Alinghi boss Ernesto Bertarelli wanted to sail the best-of-three series in May. BMW Oracle Racing, owned by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, pushed for February and was backed by the New York State Court of Appeals.

"I think that we've been pretty clear that we think Valencia is a great place for a summer America's Cup, but it's difficult in the winter," said Ed Baird of St. Petersburg, Fla., a backup helmsman with Alinghi. "So we have to be patient and recognize that it's not going to be quite as easy to get a race off as it was in the past."

The two sides met in Singapore earlier this year to try to resolve some lingering issues. They discussed racing in March, but the talks fell apart and each side blamed the other.

"This is not the best time of the year to be trying to do this," Bennett said.

"Valencia's a good place for racing," Spithill said. "I think that's obvious with what we've seen in the past. I think it's no secret that there will be some challenges with the weather during this period. That said, though, since we got here in January, we've had some fantastic days out there. Any sport that deals with weather, it's just something we've got to deal with. I think though, the two boats we've got, we do want fair racing and some good conditions.

"It's no one's fault. It's not (Bennett's) fault. That's the weather."

Because Alinghi and BMW Oracle Racing couldn't agree to rules for a conventional regatta involving several challengers sailing for the right to meet the defender, it defaulted to a rare head-to-head showdown governed by the Deed of Gift, written in 1887.

Races 1 and 3, if necessary, are 20 miles into the wind and 20 miles back. The entire race course area covers a staggering 400 square miles.

The course for Race 2 will be a triangle with 13-mile legs, the first one into the wind and the next two across it.

The Deed of Gift was written in the era of big sloops and cutters, when challengers had to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to face the New York Yacht Club's defending yacht.

USA and Alinghi 5 are high-tech marvels, dwarfing their crews and capable of sailing at up to three times the speed of the wind. USA has a wing sail that towers 223 feet above the deck and has flaps like an airplane wing.

So far, though, no one's been able to see them in action against each other.