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America's Cup sailing races hinge on seamanship, too

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When Bob Miller, an Australian yacht designer, wanted to change his name, he asked a computer for a unique alternative. ''Lexcen,'' the computer spewed out.

The new Lexcen, who added the first name Ben, later tried to come up with something else unique. Through much calculation, random sampling, and tank-testing, he designed a new racing yacht. Not so unusual, except this one has flippers, or horizontal wings on the keel that sticks out from under the hull. Lateral thinking, literally.

On those wings rest the hope of Australia, which won the right this summer to challenge for the most prestigious trophy in international sailing, the America's Cup.

This week as the yacht Australia II went up against the American defender, Liberty, in a best-of-seven series of races on Rhode Island Sound off Newport, American sailors held their breath. In 24 challenges since 1851, the United States has not lost the coveted prize.

If the finned Australian challenger won, it would end sport's longest winning streak and send the silver Victorian goblet from its bolted-down perch in the Manhattan mansion of the New York Yacht Club to an obscure Australian port near Perth.

On the wharves of Newport, where the yachts dock after a day at the races, Australia II sponsor Alan Bond, a cocky bloke who speaks in Australian ''strine, '' was seen waving a gold wrench, threatening to unbolt the Cup.

But Bond, like Lexcen, recognizes that one keel does not a winner make. Both admit that the winning boat ''will make the least mistakes.''

True enough, when the races began Wednesday after a one-day delay caused by erratic winds, the Australians made a slip which cost them the opener. And as the confrontation continued, that initial contest was seen as the one that broke the aura around the magic Lexcen keel, separated fact from fiction, and brought the race back to a matter of basics, not trickery.

The slip-up for Australia II came on the fifth leg of the six-leg, triangular race course. In an above-average wind of about 18 knots, the craft was heading downwind just behind the American boat when Liberty, skippered by 1980 Cup defender Dennis Connor, unexpectedly turned. Both boats were flying spinnakers, those eye-catching colorful sails which look like balloons floating across the ocean.

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