When most of us last tuned in to the America's Cup, the year was 2003, the venue was New Zealand, and a blue boat from Seattle with a hot...

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When most of us last tuned in to the America’s Cup, the year was 2003, the venue was New Zealand, and a blue boat from Seattle with a hot Aussie helmsman was making a strong run for the oldest trophy in competitive sport.

Four years later, in Valencia, Spain, much has changed — and much hasn’t.

The blue boats, sister yachts from Craig McCaw and Paul Allen’s Oneworld Challenge, are on the sideline — sold off as training vessels to Spanish syndicate Desafio Espanol. But the Aussie, James Spithill, and many of his Oneworld crewmen — including Seattle’s McKee brothers — remain in the hunt for the Cup as a best-of-nine series to decide the Cup challenger gets under way today in Valencia.

On the scorecard, the finals for the Louis Vuitton Cup looks like Italy vs. New Zealand. But look a bit closer, and lines of nationality blur.

Emirates Team New Zealand, by most accounts a slight favorite, is the Kiwi attempt to win back yachting’s greatest prize, which it so unceremoniously surrendered to Alinghi, skippered by Kiwi defector Russell Coutts, on the Hauraki Gulf in ’03. With veteran driver Dean Barker again at the helm, the boat is manned largely by Kiwis, and comes as close as any to being a true “national” boat.

But Italy’s entry has a strong American flavor — and a distinct Seattle aftertaste. Luna Rossa, after a disappointing ’03 Cup run, snapped up hotshot helmsman Spithill, now 28. The rising star brought with him a key member of Oneworld’s afterguard — tactician Charlie McKee, who had sailed with Spithill in various match races after the New Zealand campaign — and a dozen other members of its team, including Jonathan McKee, now a mainsail trimmer on Luna Rossa.

“It’s not a coincidence,” Charlie McKee says, by phone from Spain, of the Oneworld/Luna Rossa connection. “James had a strong influence on that.”

Catching up to America’s Cup

What: The Louis Vuitton Cup Finals, a best-of-nine match race to determine the challenger for the America’s Cup against defender Alinghi of Switzerland.

When: Today through June 9.

Where: Valencia, Spain.

How to watch: Races are carried live on cable channel Versus (formerly OLN) from 5:30 to 8 a.m. PST daily. The race broadcast is repeated at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily. Note that actual racing usually starts about 30 minutes into the coverage, and wind/weather delays are common. Fans who don’t have access to Versus can watch race simulations on the Internet, for a fee, at www.americascupanywhere.com. Online results and schedule changes are posted at www.americascup.com.

Background: The gaudy silver trophy that became known as the America’s Cup was first awarded in 1851 to the schooner America, which bested 14 British boats in a race around the Isle of Wight. American yachts of various design defended the Cup for 132 years, before Australia II wrested it away in 1983. The only other nations to hold the Cup are New Zealand and Switzerland.

This year’s campaign: Raced for the first time in Europe, the Mediterranean port of Valencia was chosen for the defense because Switzerland, the home nation of Cup holder Alinghi, has no seaport. The 32nd America’s Cup drew 11 challengers. Only two — Luna Rossa of Italy and Emirates Team New Zealand — remain.

America’s Cup schedule: The winner of the Louis Vuitton Cup will take on defender Alinghi in races scheduled June 23 to July 4.

Ron Judd

Having battle-tested compadres around you — especially those tested on a saltwater field of play as rough as New Zealand’s Hauraki Gulf — brings a high comfort level to the new campaign in Spain, McKee says. He believes team familiarity — strongly endorsed by skipper Francesco de Angelis — has paid off.

“Having good team chemistry is critical,” McKee says. “You might get through a couple months without it, but through three years of preparation, and in the tough times and pressure at the end, you have to be able to look each other in the eyes and think that, win or lose, we’ll come back strong the next day. The people from Oneworld for sure felt that way about each other.”

Luna Rossa’s cool, confident teamwork was on display in last month’s surprise 5-1 shellacking of the Louis Vuitton Cup’s “American” entry, Larry Ellison’s BMW Oracle Racing, skippered and driven by Chris Dickson. In reality, the boat was crewed largely by Kiwis — the roster showed only three Americans, fewer than other boats, including Luna Rossa.

Ellison’s highly financed campaign — $270 million is the oft-quoted rumor — fielded a state-of-the-art boat, USA-98, many considered the fastest in the 11-yacht challenger field. The boat, built in Anacortes, breezed through the two Louis Vuitton Cup round robins, seemingly with more boat speed than all comers.

But in the semifinals last month against Luna Rossa, that speed advantage proved illusory. The Italian boat dominated, thanks largely to Spithill’s repeated start-box spankings of BMW Oracle driver Dickson. Luna Rossa led at every single mark-rounding in the series.

The swamping of the only “American” entry for the America’s Cup surprised many race fans. Not Charlie McKee, who has been looking on as backup tactician to five-time Olympic medalist Torben Grael of Brazil.

“We’ve always felt better than people give us credit for,” McKee says.

Luna Rossa’s key? Teamwork, backed by a strong, experienced syndicate.

“Over the course of that series, we did a good job of improving and actually sharpening up our game,” McKee says. “You saw two pretty good teams going off in different directions. It wasn’t that they completely fell apart. We were starting well, we got little edges, and we gradually sailed better and better as the series went along.

“Of course, we always felt like BMW Oracle was never as much faster as they would have liked to lead people to believe — or maybe they believed themselves.”

The result, a ticket to today’s final round of the challenger series, was sweet — especially for the Oneworld alums ousted unceremoniously from the previous Cup by Ellison’s team.

“There’s no question, that day we eliminated Oracle … for the Oneworld guys, it was something special,” McKee says. “There’s a little extra when you’ve been waiting for three years for payback.”

For the McKees, the Valencia campaign has been a three-year continuation of lifelong sailing educations. The brothers, both Olympic sailing medalists, tested the Cup waters for the first time in ’03 with McCaw’s Oneworld, a clean-oceans-themed campaign that performed almost flawlessly in early rounds, then faded in the challenger semifinals.

Afterward, McCaw decided his millions were better spent on wi-fi than carbon fiber. Oneworld’s boats, USA-65 and USA-67, also fabricated in Washington state, ultimately were sold to the Spanish Desafio Espanol syndicate as training yachts.

But the McKees still had the fever, and have been training with Luna Rossa in Spain for three years.

Jonathan, 47, is on the race boat daily as the mainsail trimmer, helping hone the boat’s notable upwind speed. Charlie, 45, part of the Oneworld afterguard along with helmsman Spithill and skipper Peter Gilmour of Australia, admits that standing on the sideline as tactician of Luna Rossa’s “B boat” has been trying.

“It’s pretty hard,” he says. “It’s not the way I had scripted it. But it’s a big team and a big undertaking and you’ve got 100 people doing everything they can to get the team ready.”

He likens his job to backup quarterback — helping with game plans.

Besides: It’s tough to argue with the success of the man in front of him, Grael, the two-time Luna Rossa tactician who seems to be calling every wind shift correctly in recent weeks.

“It’s been great working with him; I’ve learned a lot,” McKee says. “He’s one of the best sailors in the world.”

Grael’s talents will be put to a much truer test starting today, against the Kiwis, who ousted the Spanish entry 5-2 in their semifinal.

“Dean Barker is a very strong match racer, and [the Kiwis’] afterguard is very solid,” McKee says.

And if the best-of-nine goes Luna Rossa’s way, things get no easier. The defender, Alinghi — even without star helmsman Coutts, who quit the team in a contract spat — has looked formidable, but not unbeatable, in pre-Cup regattas.

“Everyone expects Alinghi is going to be very strong,” McKee says. “They started out with the fastest boat, and they have a strong design and sailing team. As the defender, they carry certain sort of built-in advantages. Neither we nor Team NZ has any illusions that we’re going to be in the catbird’s seat if we go through to race Alinghi.”

Ron Judd: 206-464-8280 or at rjudd@seattletimes.com