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Kiwis Pick American as Skipper

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He talks funny, but New Zealanders might overlook that if this Yank leads them to victory in the America’s Cup.

Rod Davis, who grew up in Coronado sailing the same waters where the Cup will be contested starting next month, has been selected as skipper for the Sir Michael Fay’s New Zealand Challenge by syndicate manager Peter Blake.

The decision was announced Thursday night, along with the rest of the 16-man crew. All the others are native Kiwis.

Davis, 35, is the world’s third-ranked match-racing sailor, behind New Zealand’s Chris Dickson, who is sailing the Cup for Nippon Challenge, and Australia’s Peter Gilmour, the skipper for Iain Murray’s Spirit of Australia.

Davis’ rivals for the job were David Barnes, 33, who headed New Zealand’s bitter challenge with the big boat against Dennis Conner’s catamaran in 1988, and Russell Coutts, 29, like Davis an ’84 Olympic gold medalist and the world’s fourth-ranked match racer.

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Barnes will be Davis’ tactician, as he has been for Davis’ match-racing efforts. Coutts will sail the pace boat with the backup crew.

The rest of the starting lineup: bow, Alan Smith; mid-bow, David Brooke; mast, Barry McKay; pit, Denis Kendall; floater, Mark Hauser; grinders, Andrew Taylor and Sean Clarkson; genoa trimmers, Kevin Shoebridge and Grant Loretz; mainsheet traveler, Don Cowie; mainsheet trimmer, Simon Daubney; running backstays, Tony Rae and Peter Evans.

Some are veterans of New Zealand’s past two Cup campaigns; others sailed the victorious Whitbread ‘Round-the-World Race with Blake aboard Steinlager II in ’89-90.

Davis won an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. sailing as crew for Robbie Haines with Ed Trevelyan. He has said many times he will never surrender his U.S. citizenship, and this year he acquired dual citizenship.

His wife Liz is a New Zealand native, and he has lived in Auckland since sailing the ill-fated 12-meter Eagle for the Newport Harbor Yacht Club at Fremantle in 1986-87.

Blake said, “Rod’s a good leader. He says what he thinks . . . sometimes a bit more often than some would like, but that’s important. He’s pushing the guys along all the time.”

It was uncertain how the selection of an American--or half-American--to sail their boat would be received in New Zealand, where sailing is a major sport.

Peter Montgomery, a prominent and respected journalist with Radio New Zealand, said by phone Thursday, “There is a problem down here with some myopic people who say, ‘We don’t need an American on the handlebars.’ But the others respect Rod for what he has done--an Olympic gold medal, his match-racing success.

“And he’s been a resident here for five years. Five years from now he’ll still be living here, but Chris Dickson won’t be living in Japan or Paul Cayard in Italy.”

Davis said, “When I moved to New Zealand I didn’t even know if New Zealand would be in another America’s Cup.”

As a match racer, Davis is the only sailor to win three Congressional Cups--the last one while representing New Zealand.

“I’ve sailed for New Zealand a long time and this is a projection of that,” he said. “After the America’s Cup I’m going home to New Zealand, whatever happens here. I’m as much a New Zealander as I am an American at this point.”

Davis and Blake also emphasized that his selection isn’t necessarily permanent.

“If Rod has an off-day, in jumps Russell,” Blake said.

“It’s probably a little bit like being the starting quarterback,” Davis said.

Both stressed the importance of Coutts’ position on the pace boat.

“If we have all three of them on the same boat, we’re leaving the other boat weak,” Blake said, “and unless that boat’s strong it’s not gonna push the chosen crew along.”

“And Russell will push us,” Davis said.

It’s uncertain how much Davis will steer the boat, once serious racing starts.

“I’m more than happy to turn the helm over to Russell around the starting line, or David upwind or off the wind--whatever we think is the best combination,” he said.

“Collectively, we get together. It’s not just Rod Davis making the calls. It’s not the Rod Davis show.”


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