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THE AMERICA’S CUP : HIS WORD IS GO, OR NO GO : Terry Harper Is Man Who Will Have Final Say Whether the Race Will Start

Special to The Times

Weather predictions hereabouts tend to be pretty reliable.

Given that, Terry Harper took some solace in the forecast for today’s America’s Cup race, which is scheduled to begin at noon about three miles west of Pt. Loma.

“It should be the typical,” said Chris Bedford, meteorologist for Stars & Stripes, Monday afternoon. “I’m looking for an onshore, west northwesterly breeze. The velocity I’m not really settled on, but light to moderate, 6-10 knots looks probable. The winds should be much more consistent than they were Sunday.”

Such winds would make Harper’s job easier.

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He is the person who ultimately decides, after consulting a representative from each camp, whether the race is to be started on time. Fellow members of the race committee also must anchor the mark, where the boats turn around, 20 miles from the starting line on the windward-leeward course.

A consistent breeze from the west makes those two tasks easier.

If the wind is consistent and strong enough for each side to finish in less than seven hours, neither can complain that Harper’s decision was unfair.

“Wind consistency is more important than velocity because these boats are so light that they can travel at significantly faster speeds than traditional America’s Cup boats,” said Harper, appointed by Sail America as vice president of race operations for the event. “I think the ideal (wind) course would be due west 270 degrees. There’s a gigantic canyon out there. If the wind is 270 degrees, we don’t have to set the mark in 4,000 feet of water but 3,000 feet.”

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Harper, 43, is an 11-year member of the San Diego Yacht Club. He was race chairman for the pre-Olympic sailing trials last year and for the trials in San Diego this year.

Had he been chairman for a Cup race in the late 19th Century, he would not have faced the touchy decision that asthmatic breezes present today.

Back then, both sides agreed not to race if the winds were less than 6 knots. If the winds are below that today, Harper could be under pressure from his fellow club members to postpone the race, one SDYC member said.

It is generally thought that such winds would be more advantageous to the 133-foot New Zealand.

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Said Harper:

“If we have consistent wind direction, with less wind speed than would be desirable for one boat vs. the other, as long as the boats are moving and it looks reasonably like at least one will be able to finish the race (in less than seven hours), my obligation is to make sure one side doesn’t come up later and say, ‘Hey, if you had started it on time instead of postponing, we might have won the race.’ I don’t want to put the race committee in that position, because that’s not fair to us.”

Harper would not say what minimal wind speed would be required to start.

“Winds of 5.2 knots is the lowest manageable wind speed that the race will start at,” said Clay Oliver, a member of the Stars & Stripes design team.

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Oliver said two issues might make the light-air decision a moot point.

First, when the wind is really light, it also tends to be really shifty. In such a condition, setting a mark 20 miles to windward of the starting line would be very difficult.

Second, the Americans have tuned their “airplane wing” sail so that it nearly propels the craft as well to windward in light air as does the 18,000-square-foot mainsail on the New Zealand.

“Even in really light air, we shouldn’t be losing the race,” Oliver said.

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David Barnes, skipper of the New Zealand, said light, shifty breezes of under 6 knots would be ideal for the Kiwis.

Harper will receive wind readings 5, 10, 15 and 20 miles from the starting line.

Provided the start is a clean one, a crew about 20 miles to windward of the line will anchor a marker to the ocean floor. It takes about 4 minutes for the missile-shaped lead anchor to drop 3,000 feet.

Harper can declare a postponement of up to 2 1/2 hours. He and the two representatives would have to agree for the race to be canceled, at which point it would be rescheduled for Friday at noon.

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Harper, who took a sabbatical from a law firm for this event, said he is working more hours--and for less money--than he did at his job. He was appointed to the race committee by Sail America executive Tom Ehman.

Harper, who also will help judge the starboard side of the start and help oversee the spectator fleet, says his average workday has been about 16 hours the last three months.

“I have gray hair now,” he said. “I have nothing to do with fielding a race team or defending the Cup. My responsibility is to make sure the competitors have a fair and safe race.

“As such, if I even give the appearance of attempting to favor one side or the other I am subject to criticism. . . . As an active sailor and as race manager, I must make sure whatever I do appears fair for the event.

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“It may not appear to be fair for New Zealand. It may not appear to be fair for Stars & Stripes.”


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