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Alinghi team sets sail for high seas battle

Alinghi starts as one of the favourites to win the Louis Vuitton Cup

(Keystone)

Switzerland's Alinghi sailing team has kicked off its challenge for the Louis Vuitton Cup in Auckland.

The Louis Vuitton is the preliminary stage in the race to decide which team will take home sailing's greatest prize, the America's Cup.

The Swiss cruised to an easy win over Le Défi of France in their opening race on Tuesday.

Team Alinghi's bid to win the coveted trophy has the financial backing of Swiss biotechnology billionaire, Ernesto Bertarelli, who has brought together an international team headed by New Zealand skipper, Russell Coutts.

The Swiss team has emerged as one of the favourites for the Louis Vuitton Cup, the competition that decides who will challenge the New Zealanders - current holders of the America's Cup - for the ultimate prize.

Christian Scherrer, a Swiss member of the team with responsibility for trimming the upwind sails on board, told swissinfo he believed Alinghi had a "fighting chance" of making it through the first stage of the tournament.

"We've been training for the last two years for this regatta, we have very good sailors, a very good design team and we've been focusing very hard on the race," he said.

"And I do think we'll be able to have a good shot at it," he added.

Years of preparation

As skipper of the boat, Coutts has been given a free hand over the past three years to put together Alinghi's team of sailing professionals and technical experts.

"The team consists not only of sailors, but also the whole support team," said Scherrer, "which includes boat builders, designers and sailmakers, all of which makes for a big operation."

"And we've also had to design and build two racing boats, sail them against each other, and try to make them go a bit faster every day."

Scherrer says success or failure in the fiercely competitive world of professional sailing can be put down both to the design of the boat as well as the calibre and experience of those brought together to sail in it.

"Both aspects are important because if you don't have a fast boat, you'll have a hard time staying close to the others; but since these days the boats are going to be very similar, the crew will make a really big difference," Scherrer told swissinfo.

High hopes

Bertarelli's team has been widely credited by observers for their preparation, and many believe the Alinghi team will make a strong showing during the first leg of the cup.

Scherrer describes team morale as "pretty good" heading into Tuesday's first leg.

"We had a tough preparation period, but we are now well prepared and we were even able to take two days off last weekend... to relax a little bit," he said.

"It's been great to be able to lean back a little, have a rest and be ready to go when it all starts."

The 32-year-old Scherrer - whose principle task on board is to use his visual skills and precision-based judgement to trim the boat's sails - says he expects the race to be both mentally and physically demanding.

"We don't really know what to expect because we haven't met a lot of the other teams on the water, so we don't really know how tough the competition is going to be," he commented.

"What we do know is that it is going to be really tough, and with the wind and weather conditions, anything is possible," he added, "and we know that every point counts."

Tough competition

The Alinghi team is likely to face stiff competition from a number of rival foreign syndicates also lining up to take part in the opening round, including the Italian Prada team and two American entrants, Oracle and OneWorld.

"The Italians are going to be really strong," said Scherrer, "because they won the Louis Vuitton Cup last time."

"The Americans are also going to be tough to beat, but because there are no real underdogs or weak teams, everything is possible."

Scherrer anticipates a tough race ahead, but says the spirit among fellow team members is "positive" and that those on board the Swiss boat are "motivated to get into the racing".

"All I can say for the moment is that we have a good feeling and for the rest, we'll find out over the next couple of days."

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh

Alinghi America's Cup

Estimated budget: SFr90 million.
Alinghi base area: 4,000 square metres.
Two hangars for the syndicate's yachts as well as offices and technical facilities that remain off-limits.

end of infobox


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