America's Cup Weathers Terror Threats

Wed Feb 26, 4:46 AM ET
By BERNIE WILSON, AP Sports Writer

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - School kids played on mockups of an America's Cup boat, real sailors raced model yachts and bartenders poured pints before noon.

Life slogged on as normal at the America's Cup following a public warning from anti-terror police after letters containing cyanide crystals and white powder were seized by postal workers.

Although stormy weather kept crowds small at the Viaduct Basin on Wednesday, the head of the America's Cup organizing committee hopes the threatening letters don't keep people away whenever racing in the weather-marred regatta resumes.

"We're being responsible about it and everybody is working with police, but we still want people to come down and wave the teams out each day," Tony Thomas said.

The threatening letters, addressed to the U.S. Embassy and the British and Australian High Commissions in the capital of Wellington, referred to "actions" that could occur if Iraq was attacked. The letters mentioned the America's Cup races. Police said a small quantity of cyanide was in one of the letters, but wouldn't identify which diplomatic mission received that letter.

Enough cyanide to kill up to 20 people was sent in a threatening letter to the U.S. Embassy shortly before the New Zealand golf open in January 2002.

Police could not yet rule out the possibility that the latest letters were sent by the same person, as "there are enough similarities to raise in our minds a link," said assistant commissioner Jon White, head of New Zealand's counterterror squad.

The powder in the three letters was tested for anthrax, but none was found, White said. A fourth letter containing white powder was sent to the New Zealand Herald newspaper in Auckland.

Wednesday was a scheduled day off at the America's Cup, which has been stalled for more than a week by uncooperative weather on the Hauraki Gulf. Officials will decide Thursday morning whether to try and sail Race 4, which has been postponed five times. The forecast is for wind of 18 to 24 knots, gusting to 28, with rough seas.

Security appeared to be at the same level as before the threats were received. The last American yacht was eliminated in January. Two Americans sail for Alinghi of Switzerland, which has a 3-0 lead over Team New Zealand. One of the Kiwi boat designers is an American.

Security at the America's Cup has been high since the nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, on Oct. 12 that killed 192 people, most of them foreign tourists.

"This is just another reminder to keep that level of alertness," Thomas said.

Thomas said a threatening letter was received in late December, warning people not to come to the Viaduct on New Year's, but nothing happened.

Russell Wilson, 42, of Canterbury, was having a beer at The Loaded Hog late Wednesday morning. "A quiet one before I go to the airport," he said.

Wilson wasn't worried about the threats.

"I heard it on the news last night, but I still came down here for a snack and a few beers," he said. "I think security is pretty good here. The police know what they're doing."

Constable Andrew Henderson said the waterfront was quiet.

"It's just part of a crank, I would think," he said of the threats. "We're at a certain level of security, anyway."

Henderson and his partner, Paul Ogilvie, stopped at the Swiss interactive plaza to play a virtual sailing game that simulates an America's Cup race.

"It's quite a cool game," he said.

A few minutes later, a group of fifth- and sixth-graders swarmed the plaza, where visitors can turn the same winches that grinders turn, and feel what it's like to be on the pitching bow of a sloop.

With gale-force wind predicted for the gulf, neither the Swiss nor Team New Zealand went out on the water.

Some of the Swiss crew, including syndicate head and navigator Ernesto Bertarelli, raced remote-controlled yachts, using a small inflatable cow for one of the buoys.

In December, Alinghi received letters threatening violence against the families of some New Zealand sailors working for the syndicate. The team's large New Zealand contingent includes skipper Russell Coutts and tactician Brad Butterworth.

Security guards have been seen standing next to Bertarelli, a biotech billionaire, as the Swiss boat is towed out to the race course.

The America's Cup itself was attacked in 1997 by a Maori independence activist who smashed the 152-year-old trophy's midsection with a sledgehammer. The cup was repaired and returned to the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron, where it's been displayed in a bulletproof case and stored in a vault at night.