Rich Roberts Reports

Davis planning to play a bigger part with Prada

Davis in the recent Congressional Cup, with a Prada crew.

Eight America's Cups for four countries and counting, but Rod Davis won't be counted out.

At 46, he still wants to drive an America's Cup boat, and he will. The question is, when the Louis Vuitton Cup challenger trials start Oct. 1 at Auckland whether it will be the Prada's race boat or the trial horse.

Davis, who grew up in the San Diego suburb of Coronado, Calif., was hired too late by the Italian syndicate to meet national residency requirements and sail on the boat in '99-2000, but he played an important role. As Prada qualified to meet defender Team New Zealand in the final match, Davis served as sailing manager and coach for the novice effort. He tutored skipper Francesco de Angelis and tactician Torben Grael in all the match racing tricks he knew, drove the backup boat in practice, trailed the races in a tender and debriefed the crew after each race.

Later, he returned to the international match racing circuit to strop his skills. He hasn't lost the touch that brought him the first of four Congressional Cup wins in 1981. The competition had become a lot tougher, but he was still competitive, although not victorious.

In Long Beach for the most recent Congressional Cup, Davis assessed Prada's hopes for '02-03, as well as his own. Prada will still have an Italian skipper, Francesco de Angelis, but the identity of the helmsman is unresolved. A third player in the picture is the young and aggressive Gavin Brady, who took winner Peter Holmberg to the edge at Long Beach.

Davis (right) at helm of Prada's trial horse in '99-2000 at Auckland

"Francesco is the sailing director and skipper," Davis said. "I steer the other boat. Gavin steers 20 per cent of the time [for both]."

Q: Is there an 'A' boat and a 'B' boat?

Davis: "Well . . . you'll have to talk to Francesco about that. He says there's not. There are three potential helmsmen: Francesco, me and Gavin. That decision is made by Francesco."

Q: Is helm-swapping a possibility?

Davis: "We've experimented with Gavin starting and Francesco steering after that, but at the end of the day Francesco will be steering the boat---my prediction."

Q: After losing the first race of the 5-0 final match against the Kiwis in 2000, you said privately, "I hope we can take one race off them." What did you see or sense?

Davis: "We figured out that they were gonna be quicker."

Q: What else?

Davis: "Team New Zealand in 2000 was an intimidating team. Because of their history, they specialize in intimidating other teams, whereas our team was young, brand new to the event, eyes wide open, all swept up in the thing. We needed to have a faster boat if we were gonna win. We had to have a nice little edge. Otherwise, the Team New Zealand machine would rumble us. Now we're in a different situation. We have a campaign under our belt. We've been toughened up. We're ready to go."

Q: With most of the old crew gone, will the Kiwis be weaker?

Davis: "No, I think they'll be just as good as they were."

Q: How did it all play out for Prada last time?

Davis: "When we started the round-robin we had to win a bunch of races early on. We had to lead from the beginning of the regatta. It wasn't like Dennis Conner's team, which has so much depth, so much experience, has been through the wars so many times. They can take the hits and it doesn't faze 'em. We were rookies. We take some hits in the first round and we're probably going to struggle through the rest of it.

"So we came out with all guns blazing from the beginning. We just had to. So it came down to the end and we'd never beaten Team New Zealand in a regatta before . . . there we go."

Q: The perception was that Prada was spent after the difficult challenger trials.

Davis: "The [5-4] series with [Paul] Cayard was emotionally stressful. Had the series been more straightforward and not such an emotional roller coaster, I think the team would have sailed better. We actually sailed the America's Cup Match [in shock]. Everything that could go wrong went wrong.

"Had we sailed well, I don't think the result would have been different. We might have gotten a race off 'em, but the really bad part was being emotionally drained after the Cayard deal and not being able to regroup quickly enough."

Q: Besides the trauma of the trials, was Prada satisfied just to reach the final match?

Davis: "That's it a little bit. First-time teams [usually] don't win Super Bowls."

Q: When did it fall apart?

Davis: "The second race was when they got fishing net on the keel and [grinder] Max [Galli] got his head cut. That was just a disaster race. [There was a] lay day the next day, and then the third race was due to start. We pumped it up really hard and pushed everything for the start of the third race . . . had a good, hard practice and just pounded on 'em. We were gonna put all our chips on the table and go for it, right here."

Q: Then that race was postponed a day because of light winds.

Davis: "That was it. The guys were all pumped up---boom! Now we've got another day delay. You can't drop 'em down, but you're not gonna be able to keep 'em up to that level. But it was a risk we had to take. If we were ever going to turn the tide, it was right there. They were definitely fired up. Coming in from the starboard end, here we go."

Q: You gave it your best shot and still lost. Then what?

Davis: "The fourth race we crossed 'em on starboard a third of the way up the beat, went out to the left and got beat up in a shift---after both teams wanted the left off the starting line. I had to apologize to Torben because I'd told him, 'Torben, if you get ahead, just do what you want to do, don't get flustered, don't feel like you have to cover. Stay heads up.' He wanted the left, and he finally got it. Russell [Coutts] ducked him [and went right into a favorable shift]. Things didn't work out."

Q: Why do you think the Kiwis will be just as strong?

Davis: "The changes in the sailing personnel helped both the guys that left and the guys that stayed. All those guys that are gone, if they'd stayed, wouldn't be better than Dean Barker and his guys for the next one. When you have the same band that's been playing together for 10 years, you have to go off and do something new. It's good for Coutts to go off and have a new challenge ahead of him, not just doing the same thing for the 12th year in a row.

"So Dean and his guys have the baton handed to them with their backs against the wall, and they're young, aggressive and motivated. Tell you what, if you're a coach, that's a pretty good team to have."

Q: Barker never asked for the job---Coutts just handed it to him---and it involves more than just driving the boat but doing a lot of PR and fund-raising activities. Can he handle it?

Davis (laughing): "Coutts never bothered to do that stuff, anyway. Dean's got a bit on, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Dean in about October shut down everything but sailing."

Q: Will the loss of Sir Peter Blake be felt?

Davis: "I don't think the passing of Peter Blake will hurt the team. I think they're gonna do the job."

Q: Will we see a different Prada?

Davis: "Prada's very different from the last time . . . much more run by the Italians. It's run more from Milan than from the [sailing] base. We're based on having a faster boat, whereas last time we were based on trying to have a good boat and sail well. This time we're very much design-oriented."

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