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Morgan Larson was a precarious position -- 100 feet up the mast of AmericaOne assessing wind and sea conditions while the boat bobbed on the waves -- when he sensed an impending collision.

"I have to protect my assets when I'm hanging on up there and the boats are going to jerk," he said.

So the 5-foot-8, 164-pound strategist for the United States' entry in the America's Cup challenger finals was ready when his boat was nudged from behind by Prada of Italy during prestart maneuvering today at Auckland, New Zealand.

"I held on a little tighter," he said.

Larson recovered, but so did Prada.

The Italian boat scored a 24-second victory in the opening race of the best-of-nine round to determine who would face defending champion New Zealand in another best-of-nine series starting Feb. 19 for sailing's top prize.

Prada had a chance to go up 2-0 today despite being penalized for the bump. Skipper Francesco de Angelis had to do a 360-degree turn at a point of his choice on the six-leg, 18 1/2 -mile Hauraki Gulf course.

He did that just before reaching the midpoint of the race, then held off a late charge by AmericaOne skipper Paul Cayard on the last leg.

The America's Cup final starts Feb. 19.

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