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Wishing for Wind

"Happy birthday, Russell! How about bringing us some wind!"

On the day that Team New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts turns 38, everyone in Auckland is hoping his birthday wish will bring wind to the inner Hauraki Gulf.

Team NZ and Prada return to the suddenly placid body of water today hoping to conduct Race 4, which already has been postponed three times due to benign winds.

Race 4 was originally scheduled for six days ago. But the postponement of Races 1 and 3 pushed it back to last Sunday. Then non-existant winds twice forced it to be further delayed, foiling the best plans. So the decision-makers agreed to allow racing on today's scheduled off day.

With no race since Saturday and only one race in the past week, Principal Race Officer Harold Bennett acknowledged that the delays risk making the event boring and the public losing interest.

"We've had some good sailing days when we were not sailing and today another day with no breeze when we should be sailing," he said.

"We've been dithering around between these bloody on-days and off-days, missing the breeze, and I think everyone agrees that that's been bloody boring."

Despite all the delays, little has changed for Prada. The Italian challenger still faces a 3-0 deficit, and the question remains will Prada can even win a single race, let alone win the five races it needs to take the America's Cup from the Kiwis. In three races, the Italian boat has not finished within one minute of New Zealand.

In the first race, Luna Rossa led off the line, but New Zealand skipper Russell Coutts used his starboard-tack advantage to take control and cruised to a 1:17 victory in the 10- to 12-knot southwesterly breeze.

The second race was a disaster even before the start. The Kiwis left the Italians 18 seconds behind at the gun. Luna Rossa narrowed the gap to half a boat length, displaying the promise of speed in the 13-knot southerly breeze. Then misfortune struck -- a piece of debris snagged on the keel, taking the Italians out of the race.

In Saturday's match, the Kiwis again dominated the start and won the right side of the course coming off the line. But even when the Italians were lifted on port tack, they could not get by New Zealand in the 13-knot breeze and lost by 1:39.

Nonetheless, the Italians remain optimistic. Skipper Francesco de Angelis said, "We should wait to see how the boats perform in different conditions before making conclusions" as to whether New Zealand is faster than Luna Rossa.

He also said they'll be doing things a little different. "We're taking a new attitude into the start. We are going to be more aggressive," he said.

De Angelis will have the starboard entry, so that will give him the initial advantage, particularly if the conditions are light.

But for the Italians to have a chance of beating the crack New Zealand crew, they must be at the top of their game not just physically, but psychologically as well. At the conclusion of Race 3, the Prada crew crossed the finished line dejected and looking every bit the beaten team that they were.

Three days have passed since Race 3 last Saturday. The break could be a boon for Prada, or it could just be prolonging the inevitable. At least Prada should be refocused after the layoff, but Coutts will likely be finely tuned. Rare is the occasion when a Cup skipper has a chance to win a race on his birthday.

As with any forecast, today's weather varies depending on whom you talk to. Prada said last night that it would be light and frustrating, like the last two race days. Team New Zealand was predicting a fresh, 12- to 15-knot east/northeasterly.

That type of breeze would blow out the candles on Coutts', but it's unlikely he would mind, especially if it resulted in a race win that would place him and his crew on the precipice of their second Cup victory.

ENDS

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