A Sailing Boat To Catch The Breath

Posted: November 24, 1988

The stealth bomber of sailboat racing came to Philadelphia yesterday.

Perched high overhead on a barge moored at Penn's Landing, the 132-long- foot sloop New Zealand, which arrived here yesterday for a four-day exhibit, seemed as dramatic in design as the black B-2 bomber - the so-called flying wing - unveiled Tuesday at an Air Force base in California.

The New Zealand, which made a highly publicized but unsuccessful challenge for the America's Cup in court and on the waters off San Diego, was as cloaked in secrecy as the B-2 during its construction. It is even built of composite materials similar to those used in the B-2.

The New Zealand - an aluminum, titanium, carbon-fiber machine that cost ''millions" and can sail faster than the wind pushing it - is owned by Aukland businessman Michael Fay.

Now Fay hopes the yacht, on its last stop in a tour of seven U.S. cities, can win his country more good will than it did silver in the September Cup races. In that series, Dennis Conner's catamaran, Stars and Stripes, performed what sailors call a "horizon job" on the big boat. It remains to be seen whose lawyers will perform the legal equivalent in a continuing court case focused on the legality of racing a catamaran against a sloop.

Murray Greenhalgh, a New Zealand crew member from Aukland who was showing visitors around the yacht yesterday, said, "We have a saying: 'The opera's not over until the fat lady sings.' And we're still in court. But there's a gag order on the proceedings so we don't know what's going on."

Whatever the outcome of the legal case, the amazed stares and comments directed at the sloop yesterday indicated that, while he may have lost the Cup, Fay will win the public relations contest.

"That thing's bad," one man in a black leather jacket said as he surveyed the decks.

"What did you all use it for? To sail?" a young woman said, looking astonished. "Hmmmmm."

Even the true aficionados were impressed by a close view of the yacht.

"She was a beautiful thing to watch," said Bob Kitz, a resident of Wenonah, N.J., who said he has attended every America's Cup series since 1954 - 10 series in all. Like a lot of sailing purists, Kitz was dismayed by the bickering that surrounded New Zealand's challenge.

"I was disappointed with the race," he said of the series he watched off San Diego. "I just felt they (the Americans) had no business running a different type of boat against New Zealand. To run a catamaran against it - well, everyone knew what the outcome would be. I think both guys were too stubborn. A good many members of the (San Diego) yacht club were embarrassed by the whole thing."

For most people, though, the New Zealand itself overshadows the dockside and courtroom rhetoric. With its gleaming white hull that curves gracefully out near the middle to form two "wings" where a rail crew can help balance the yacht, it looks like a cross between a sailboat and a stubby-winged attack jet. Its high-tech hull and computerized nerve system contrast with its traditional bowsprit, which extends from its nose like a narwhal's tusk.

As complicated as it looks, the New Zealand was "easy" to sail once its nearly 40-member crew got the hang of it, said crew member George Jakich.

"You'd just sit on the rail and eat meat pies," Jakich said of the job of the 12-member rail team.

Down below - in what America's Cup sailors refer to as the "sewer" - a group of sweat-soaked, muscular men would be furiously cranking winches known as "coffee grinders."

"She's very responsive, very well-behaved," Greenhalgh said of the yacht. ''She exceeded a lot of her design predictions the first week of sailing."

Moving far up into the dark confines of the New Zealand's bow, Greenhalgh pulled out two intricate carvings in a native New Zealand wood, carvings that seemed strangely primitive among the yacht's high-tech gear. The carvings - one of the god of wind, the other of the god of the sea - were gifts placed on board by the New Zealand people before the yacht raced, Greenhalgh said.

"There's a tradition that went with a blessing of the yacht that they (the carvings) should never come off the boat or it would be bad luck," Greenhalgh said.

He replaced the two talismans as carefully as if they had shepherded the New Zealand to victory. Outside, as a big crowd was gathering by the yacht's deck, it seemed that maybe the carvings had not let down the people of New Zealand.

"Even though we had to walk away without the America's Cup, it's been a terrific success for New Zealand," Greenhalgh said of the yacht.

IF YOU GO

TIME: The New Zealand will be open to the public from noon to 4 p.m. today and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

PRICE: Free.

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