Alinghi retains America’s Cup with 1-second win over Team New Zealand

Published 9:45 pm Tuesday, July 3, 2007

In the end, a four-year race for the America’s Cup came down to one second.

Alinghi won a thrilling photo finish over Team New Zealand on Tuesday, with the Swiss team squeaking across the finish line one second ahead to take the best-of-nine series 5-2.

“To win at the last second, it’s unbelievable,” Alinghi’s billionaire owner Ernesto Bertarelli said. “It’s done a lot for the sport. It’s got my heart.”

Landlocked Switzerland joins the United States and New Zealand as having successfully defended their titles in yachting’s most prestigious race. Alinghi swept defending winner Team New Zealand 5-0 in the best-of-nine series in Auckland four years ago.

“This is definitely bigger and better than last time. It’s been much harder,” Bertarelli said. “It’s been more fulfilling than 2003. Aside from the birth of my children, (today) is the best day of my life.”

Skipper Brad Butterworth guided the Swiss boat to a second straight Auld Mug trophy in strong and steady wind off Port America’s Cup.

“He’s the best sailor in the world,” Bertarelli said.

Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey congratulated the team, saying the victory showed “we Swiss find our way at sea, not just in the mountains.”

Butterworth fastened an Alinghi baseball cap to the top of the 156-year-old Auld Mug after the SUI-100 yacht and its crew entered Port America’s Cup with a trail of red confetti complementing the clang of cow bells.

“To win against (the Kiwis) just shows the strength of our group,” Butterworth said. “As a crew, it was one of the better races we sailed.”

As sport’s oldest trophy was passed around the crew and champagne sprayed from the stage, the NZL-92 yacht was quietly docking at the other end of the port to cheers from its own supporters.

Alinghi’s initial celebration was also muted after it nearly let the race get away in what turned into a tense final 200 yards.

The Swiss crossed the finish line after letting a penalty advantage and big lead slip over the last leg. Both boats sailed across the line nearly even, with the Swiss bow barely ahead to win the closest fought series in 24 years.

“That run turned into a bit of a minefield,” Butterworth said. “I was in a little bit of denial believing the wind would hold.”

Alinghi’s spinnaker sail flew out as the wind shifted suddenly, and the Kiwis were able to make up a large deficit and overtake the Swiss shortly before the finish line.

But the Kiwis lost crucial speed performing a penalty turn assessed on the last lap. Both boats crept toward the finish with the SUI-100 yacht’s bow coming across the finish just barely ahead.

The hazy summer day provided even conditions across the race course and a steady and full sea breeze — the reason Alinghi chose the Spanish port city to host the 32nd edition — for the first time all series.

It was a fine end to the closest and most exciting regatta since 1983, when Australia II rallied for a 4-3 series win over Liberty, wrestling the Auld Mug from American shores for the first time.

Butterworth filled the role of Russell Coutts — one of the greatest skippers in America’s Cup history — and skippered cagily throughout the series, especially in the final race.

Butterworth was one of five Kiwi crew members left over from the Team New Zealand team that won back-to-back cups in 1997 and 2000 before abandoning ship for Alinghi in 2003. They celebrated with the rest of the seven nationalities which make up the crew, including the lone Swiss, Bertarelli.

The Kiwis know they will have to return to Europe if they hope to take back the Cup for a third time.

“They beat us fair and square in the end,” crew member Grant Dalton said, his voice shaking slightly.

The America’s Cup is named for its first winner, the U.S. yacht America, in 1851. In its 156-year history, only three regattas have been as closely contested as this one.