By Alexander Smith
(Reuters) - Kitted out more like fighter jet pilots than sailors, three crews from Britain, Italy and the United States begin a series of dog fights this week to claim the Prada Cup in New Zealand.
At stake for INEOS Team UK, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team and New York Yacht Club American Magic is the chance to challenge Emirates Team New Zealand for the 36th America's Cup.
While the America's Cup may be the oldest trophy in international sport it has always been a design-led race, with the AC75 class of "foiling" monohulls which the teams have developed for this event now at the cutting edge of engineering.
Critical to how the teams fare in the Prada Cup, which begins off Auckland on Friday to decide on who gets to challenge the Kiwis in March, is how they "fly" the futuristic craft.
The AC75s lift out of the water on hydrofoils and have already hit nearly 50 knots (93 kilometres per hour), testing the limits of their 11-man crew and making helmets, body armour and emergency breathing apparatus essential to safety.
Racing was curtailed in 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic, but a short December World Series event which included the defenders gave a glimpse of how tight the two-boat battles might be as teams hone sails, hulls and foils to eke out extra speed.
Although the home team won overall they were beaten once by American Magic, led by veteran Terry Hutchinson, who came second and go into the Prada Cup as favourites ahead of Max Sirena's Luna Rossa and INEOS Team UK.
The British had a disastrous series aboard Britannia, wrestling with technical problems which prevented them from finishing some races and meant they were at times much slower.
"It's a development game," skipper Ben Ainslie said after losing to the Kiwis, and in a series of practice races this week the British have shown much improved boat speed and stability.
The Prada Cup runs from Jan. 15, when American Magic race INEOS Team UK in the first encounter, to Feb. 22 and is followed by the America's Cup itself from March 6 to March 15.
(This story refiles to correct spelling of Hutchinson in paragraph 7)
(Reporting by Alexander Smith; Editing by Toby Davis)