In Hostile Territory

Special to The Times

The America's Cup, with its unceasing squabbling, has long been as much sideshow as sailing, but now it has come to this:

* When Brad Butterworth, the tactician for Switzerland's Alinghi team, attended a news conference after the first race of the current Louis Vuitton Cup challenger trials, he was accompanied by three bodyguards.

* Before the news conference, bomb-sniffing dogs checked the room in the waterfront media center.

* Alinghi's skipper, Russell Coutts, and billionaire team owner Ernesto Bertarelli also are under close guard these days.

The America's Cup isn't funny anymore. Coutts, Butterworth and teammates have received death threats. Their offense?

They are native New Zealanders who won, and then defended, the Cup for their proud little country, but then chose to sail for Bertarelli and Switzerland for a lot more money.

Now, each day when their boat leaves the Viaduct Basin through an opening 20 yards wide, they are jeered by Kiwi countrymen as "money-hungry traitors" and worse.

Bertarelli, the 37-year-old team owner, navigator and head of the Serono pharmaceutical company, told Associated Press, "If there was an incident, it would be a tragedy for New Zealand."

If all of that has affected the team's performance, it hasn't shown in two easy opening wins over San Francisco's Oracle BMW in the best-of-nine challenger finals, which resume today.

The unrest started when Coutts and Butterworth announced their departure nearly three years ago. Then, the turmoil was attributed mainly to an eccentric but harmless fringe group calling itself BlackHeart, whose mission of "country before money" was promoted on a Web site and billboards around Auckland.

Recently, it took on a nastier tone when, according to news reports, another group calling itself Teach the Traitors a Lesson said it knew where the defecting New Zealanders lived and threatened violent action.

It all seems so out of place. New Zealand is a modern, pretty country the size of California with about one-tenth the population. The people are friendly and, although crime and violence exist there, guns are not nearly as large a problem as they are in the U.S.

In the current international climate, however, all threats must be taken seriously. For New Zealand, in particular, the murder of Sir Peter Blake, shot in the back by river pirates on the Amazon 13 months ago, is still fresh in local minds.

It was Blake who led the effort to win the Cup and planned the 2000 defense before stepping aside to pursue environmental interests.

Coutts and Butterworth, longtime sailing and golfing buddies, soon followed him and took the heart of their crew -- headsail trimmer Simon Daubney, bowman Dean Phipps, main sail trimmer Warwick Fleury and all-around hand Murray Jones -- with them to Switzerland.

New Zealanders didn't like it, but most understood. The country's economy is not as strong as those of more advanced nations, and many young people seek better-paying jobs overseas.

Even BlackHeart concedes: "We understand that sailors need to earn a living and that all New Zealand sailors cannot be part of Team New Zealand ... [but] Team New Zealand's dynasty will remain, with the right personnel. Team New Zealand may not have the money of the billionaires, but they have talent, guts and a heart as big as the universe. That is where our money, energy and loyalty have to go and that is where we will be loyal."

BlackHeart also disavows the threats.

"BlackHeart has no bad motives," a statement says.

Apparently, somebody does.

But then there is Chris Dickson, a Kiwi who led New Zealand in two America's Cups, including its first effort in '86-87, but is skipper for Oracle BMW in this one. As far as anyone knows, Dickson has not been threatened; nor were any of the other displaced Kiwis sailing for other challengers before their teams were eliminated.

There also is conjecture that the hard feelings could turn inward. An unidentified rival has sought an investigation into Team New Zealand's use of money earned from trademark rights for the America's Cup.

But for now, the threats are focused on Coutts, Butterworth and the other Kiwis with Alinghi. After the team's second win in this series, strategist Jochen Schumann, a German, represented the team at the news conference. Reporters might have seen the last of Coutts and Butterworth up close and personal.

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