Monday, 30 April 2007

Day of the underdog

Today’s line-up looked pretty ho-hum, and with the stronger breeze it seemed like everything would run to form. How wrong can you be! BMW Oracle v China Team should have been the dullest of matches, but no sooner had former BMW Oracle bowman Geordie Shaver made the comment on America’s Cup Radio that this was still a pressure race for the B-boat crew (because that is who was sailing USA 98 today), than the jib blew out of the headstay foil.

Poor old Sten Mohr and the rest of the B-boaters – sent out to do a routine bit of paperwork at the office – and then the window bursts open and all the paperwork goes blowing off down the street. Imagine going back to the BMW Oracle base and having to tell the bosses what happened on their day off!

Fortunately for the sailing crew, Ian Burns, head of the design team, took it on the chin. “It was disappointing. We couldn’t get round intact so they [China Team] deserve the two points - these things happen in sailing, it’s part of the territory really.
We were surprised and disappointed to see that failure, but I think it’s a sign of cutting it too close for comfort, and we will be reviewing that and a few other things to make sure that we are good enough to go the whole way. Maybe the compensation is that losing a couple of points to China Team is not as expensive as losing them to some of the other competitors out there.”

Areva Challenge sailed a blinder of a day, taking both of their races – first against Mascalzone Latino which the French won with a sucker punch of a luffing match on the first run. And then they pounced on +39 Challenge down the final run of a thrilling showdown between these teams that promise so much, but don’t quite have the finesse to match the top teams.

It was a day of so near and yet so far for Iain Percy and the +39 gang. To lose by just one second to Desafio Espanol in their first match after dominating the Spanish in the pre-start and leading for all but the final hundred metres, only to repeat the whole painful process against Areva. Hardly surprising, though, considering the severe lack of practice and organisation this team has endured for the past two years.

The team can sail smart and fast when unbothered by the other boat, but in close quarters contests the boathandling just wasn’t sufficiently tight. What Areva and +39 Challenge have both proven today, however, is that they are no pushovers and both teams must be treated with respect.

Possibly two of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the day, Victory v Luna Rossa and Mascalzone v New Zealand, proved to be among the least exciting. Not that they were dull, but the two middle-order teams had an opportunity to prove their pedigree as Semi Finals contenders, and neither managed to do so.

With Desafio’s skin-of-the-teeth win from +39 Challenge, the Spanish hold a useful three point lead over their rivals for the fourth spot in the Semis. That one second victory today could be the moment that Spain ensured its survival beyond the end of the Round Robin phase, little more than a week from now.

Victory from the Jaws of Defeat

Victory Challenge seem to have been one of the underperformers of the Round Robins to date, not to mention their woeful catalogue of sail-handling errors in the fleet racing of Louis Vuitton Act 13. Yet here they are in 5th place on the leaderboard, so there is still much for the Swedes to play for.

How many more Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free cards will come their way though, such as the one handed to them by Shosholoza yesterday? The spinnaker pole breakage was another heartbreaking moment for the South Africans who, while they have great boatspeed and are sailing tactically very well, are being let down either by ripping spinnakers or snapping poles.

These can be the hardest defeats to take, as skipper Mark Sadler's comment indicates: "It is so disappointing, you can't imagine. Have a second spinnaker pole on board would be too heavy, so what can we do? We didn't make any mistakes at all during the race but we had some strange manoeuvres. All was going so well, we are fast and good. And then once again a material problem. When it happened I thought, 'Oh no, not again!' We have to keep going of course, but this is really hard to digest."

It all just seems to be slipping away for Shosholoza after such a strong start to the Round Robin campaign. A Semi Finals spot now looks a long way away, with Desafio Espanol displaying the sort of form that suggests they are not going to relinquish 4th spot without a big fight.

What the smaller teams must keep on telling themselves is that anything can happen in these conditions. Covering your opponent in such fickle breeze can be a fool's game, with the greater priority being to tap into the best power supply up the course. Gavin Brady's comment after BMW Oracle's race against Germany shows how weather-focused the American team was yesterday: "Our weather team told us there would be a pretty big right hand shift, and whoever was in front would probably win the race.

"So the mentality had to shift from it being a four-leg race to being a one-leg race, and we knew we had to maximise everything, make sure we had our best sail up, and win the start and the first windshift. So there was a little bit of heat on board for that first leg. But our weather team predicted it dead right – it became a one-way race course."

One of the most intriguing of today's matches looks the line-up between Victory and Luna Rossa. The Swedes have proven themselves well capable of giant-killing in the past, and Luna Rossa's starting has been off-key of late, so Victory have to believe they can win this confrontation - without the sort of luck that they relied on yesterday.

And then there is the prospect of Mascalzone Latino against Emirates Team New Zealand, two teams that for different reasons have their backs against the wall. For the Kiwis it is a matter of pride and team morale to keep Mascalzone at bay, while for the Italians it is a matter of staying in the hunt for the last four.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Thumbs Up for BMW Oracle

A fantastic day’s racing in Valencia to conclude a Round Robin that at one time seemed like it would never end. So what did we learn from today? Well, for starters, that none of the helmsmen in the leading teams are infallible.

It’s easy to overlook the fact that Chris Dickson, with all the other responsibilities he faces as head of BMW Oracle Racing, remains one of the best starters in the business. He has looked very consistent in the pre-starts. In the big decider match to determine who would win Round Robin One, he had Dean Barker and the Kiwis wrapped up like a kipper. Dickson saw a moment to close the Kiwis out of the start and put BMW Oracle at a massive early advantage.

However, Dickson got greedy and in his eagerness to post a ‘kill’, lost control of the situation and let Barker off the hook as NZL 92 sailed off to an unexpected early lead. However, the fact that the Kiwis ended up winning the start shouldn’t distract from the fact that in both pre-starts today the New Zealand boat looked in all sorts of trouble.

Magnus Holmberg can take credit for winning the pre-start against Barker in the match earlier this afternoon, although it was another case of the Kiwis wriggling out of trouble and finding better breeze on the right. Barker has been taking a lot of flak in some corners of the media for his inconsistent starting performances and rightly so, on the strength of what we saw today.

James Spithill, helmsman of Luna Rossa, is seen by some as the Russell Coutts of the next generation. Widely acknowledged as one of the most aggressive but controlled match racers in the game, we didn’t see the best of the young Aussie in the Italian team’s starts against Mascalzone Latino and Desafio Espanol – even if Luna Rossa ended up as the only team to win both matches today. Again, when analysing starting performance, Luna Rossa's results flatter to deceive.

Arguably the star of the pre-starts has been Jes Gram Hansen, whose roughing up of Luna Rossa today put Mascalzone Latino at a significant advantage on the first beat. It was unfortunate that Mascalzone could not hold on to that lead until the end of the race, but that is no reflection on the up-and-coming Dane’s starting ability.

It seemed that in today’s fickle and unpredictable conditions, winning or losing the start had little bearing on the eventual outcome of the race. There were numerous passing opportunities, and so it was a big day for the windspotters at the top of the rigs, sniffing out the best puffs of breeze wafting down the track. Desafio’s second helmsman, Jesper Radich, made the comment during his guest spot on America’s Cup Radio today that 90% of teams who lead round the first mark go on to win the match. But in these unstable conditions, raw statistics appear to count for little.

The unsteady breezes have certainly added to the excitement of Round Robin One, but have made it less easy to discern any real boatspeed differences between the top teams. Desafio Espanol won a drag race off the start line with BMW Oracle and beat the American boat fair and square, so there appears little wrong with the Spanish package. The Italian teams on the other hand seem more reliant on some decent breeze to get their boats up to race-winning pace.

Top Italian team Luna Rossa hasn’t looked entirely convincing and yet at the end of this intriguing first phase they lie second in the rankings. So, not so bad after all, perhaps? Along with Luna Rossa, the Spanish are the team in the ascendant. Confidence will be blooming, while in the New Zealand camp there will be a feeling that things just aren’t clicking. Before this season, most pundits would have put the Kiwis just ahead of BMW Oracle as the favourite to race Alinghi later this summer. After Round Robin One, however, the Challenger of Record is looking the most likely to front up against the Swiss.

The big teams are all facing a relatively straightforward start to Round Robin Two, with the exception of Emirates Team New Zealand’s draw against Mascalzone Latino, who claimed a Kiwi scalp in Round Robin One. It will be vital for Kiwi confidence to get the better of Jes Gram Hansen and the Latin Rascals at the start. If not, then the pressure will only continue to build on the New Zealanders.

Areva caught out by plumb crazy rule

While there's not much point in Areva Challenge crying over spilt milk, they must feel a little hard done by after being ruled as Did Not Finish from yesterday's finish line drama against Team Shosholoza.

I'm sure that race officer Peter 'Luigi' Reggio and Bryan Willis's jury are absolutely correct in having determined that Areva's mast tip never recrossed to the course side of the line, and rules is rules. But what a harsh way to lose a point. Natural justice would suggest that if you re-round the finish buoy without hitting it, then that should be sufficient to offload the penalty.

The counter-argument could run that if you don't want to take the risks inherent with using the finish buoy as the place to offload the penalty, then Areva could have taken the 270 degree turn further up the course. Of course that wouldn't have won them the race either because the finish between Shosholoza and the French was close enough as it was, let alone trying to do a penalty before the finish and then sailing the final few metres downspeed with just mainsail and genoa up.

So Areva were damned if they did and damned if they didn't. In the modern media world where audiences demand instant decisions, however, doesn't it make sense to revise this rule rather than have this overnight delay until a jury can make the final decision? Meanwhile, next time Areva have to take a penalty, they should send a man aloft with a very long plumbline hanging from the top of the mast. That way they'll know for sure whether they were clear or not!

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Ebay your way into the race

Fancy a ride on BMW Oracle, the boat of the moment? Well, if you've got $40,000 spare, then you could ride as 18th man aboard USA 98. Go and bid on Ebay for the spot. Actually, it's already $40k and there's four days to go, and the way that Chris Dickson and Co. are sailing, you can expect bids to go considerably higher.

What's more, it's all in a good cause, because 100% of the proceeds are going to a breast cancer charity. What a great use of an 18th man spot - a good deal better than Alinghi anyway - who have a policy of never taking a passenger. Not that it's going to happen, but wouldn't it be great to see an Ebay match race between the Challenger of Record and the Defender, and see who can pull in the biggest charity bucks!

Click here if you fancy a punt on ebay...

Yeah, baby! I've got my Mojo back!

A lovely quote from BMW Oracle navigator Peter Isler this evening: "That sort of mojo is beautiful when you can earn it or talk yourself into it that you have it. There is a little bit of that going around. And confidence breeds confidence. To keep winning and keep doing well and not taking chances and sailing conservative races, taking a chance only once in a while when it is necessary, and as long as we are fast - that will end up putting points on the scoreboard."

That sums up an excellent regatta so far for Chris Dickson and the Americans, who have gone unbeaten while every other team has dropped two or more matches. A good day for Luna Rossa too, as James Spithill confirmed his reputation as one of the smartest match racers on the racing scene, getting the better of Dean Barker in the pre-start and upsetting the form book to beat the Kiwis.

Desafio Espanol are earning a lot of respect for their performances and seem to be coming on strong while the wheels have been falling off the Shosholoza wagon of late. Ken Venn, mid bow on the South African boat admitted afterwards: "Unfortunately we ripped two spinnakers because of the way our rig is set up. It has a few sharp edges that need to be softened tonight."

If the kite-ripping problem really is as easily solved as that, then it begs the question why this hasn't been addressed before. The South Africans are getting so much of the difficult stuff right, it would be a great shame if they don't progress to the Semi Finals through such basic oversights on the boat maintenance.

After Alinghi's weather briefing yesterday morning, the breeze at last seems to be coming good in Valencia, the Lord be praised. With the exception of Wednesday's racing - which pretty much ran to the bookies' form - every day has some seen some upsets. Having said that, when you look at the overall standings now, things are pretty much running to expected form.

One of the slight surprises is just how dominant BMW Oracle are proving. The Kiwis have yet to impress in the way that Kiwis usually do, while Luna Rossa seems to need some breeze for their square-shaped Star boat to pick up her skirts and get going. Perhaps they have geared ITA 94 to the stronger breezes that are expected to come in later in the series, but as far as getting through to the Semi Finals, they are by no means assured of that. Desafio and Mascalzone in particular are looking like strong contenders for the Semis, so optimising your boat for later in the regatta - if indeed that is what Luna Rossa have done - is a risky strategy.

Tomorrow's line-up looks mouthwateringly good, with plenty of close matches in store. And hopefully more upsets.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Alinghi attempts to Defend the weather, as well as the America's Cup!

This from a media release by Alinghi this morning:

At a media briefing this morning, the Alinghi weather team, Jon Bilger (left in photo) and Jack Katzfey (right) explained to the media the recent weather pattern that has been plaguing the start of the Louis Vuitton Cup. They gave the statistics of sailing days in Valencia from 2000 until now and an explanation of the tools they use to make their weather predictions. Alinghi team skipper, Brad Butterworth, was also present.

Here are some of the frequently asked questions, answered:

1. Why do we have this irregular weather pattern in April?
“This April is very unusual in the sense that we have an atmospheric block over Europe which is not atypical, but it is a particularly strong block and the position of it is what is causing these weak winds over Valencia for a prolonged period,” explains Jack Katzfey.

2. What are the statistics on sailing in April, May and June?
“The statistics from 2000 to 2007 are very good for April, May and June. They vary between 80 to 90% of sailing days. However the percentage this month has been just 50% versus the 80/90% so you can see that this has been an exceptionally bad year,” explains Jon Bilger.

3. How do you make these weather predictions – what tools do you use?
“There are basically three things that you need, the first is analysis of the atmosphere, then you need a model of the atmosphere in which you input the analysis, then you run the model to give a prediction. That is a basic tool that most meteorological offices use to predict the weather,” explains Jack Katzfey.

4. What is the Meteorological Data System and why was it set up?
“The MDS is made up of 21 weather buoys on the two race courses and some of them are further off the coast, plus six land based stations. All the teams have received the same data, this is the first time this has been done and it has been very useful. The motivation for doing this, was to avoid duplication of resources by having several weather boats from different teams sitting next to each other and to provide more detailed information on course winds. The desire to reduce costs of competition in the Cup was the initial motivation in creating this system,” Jon Bilger.

5. What influence did Alinghi have on the selection of Valencia?
Influence, none at all, the Alinghi weather team was commissioned by America’s Cup Management to supply a report on Valencia weather among eight other cities. ACM then made the selection through a bidding process, about which you will need to ask them for any detail,” Jon Bilger.

6. Have Alinghi’s long-term predictions for June changed?
“No,” Jon Bilger.

7. Armed with this year’s weather data to add to the existing data, would you still recommend Valencia to hold an LVC in April/May and the America’s Cup Match in June?
“Yes of course, you can see from the data that this has been an exceptionally bad month, it has been unlucky, but any venue at any time can suffer from this sort of thing. The weather is the weather after all and it is uncontrollable,” Jon Bilger.

8. Knowing what you know now, what other venue for the America’s Cup would you have recommended?
“We still stand by our analysis that Valencia is a good sailing venue, it should not be judged on a single meteorological event,” Jon Bilger.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Shosholoza talk the talk, AND walk the walk

Well, knock me down with a feather! When Mark Lagesse said Shosholoza would be disappointed if they didn't beat Luna Rossa, that just seemed like the usual bravado you get from sailors after a good day on the water. Apologies, Mark, I should never have doubted you!

The South Africans continue to shock and surprise, while Luna Rossa becomes more and more of an enigma. No sooner have they been whopped by the little people (in financial terms, anyway), than they hold BMW Oracle to one of the most tense and thrilling matches yet seen.

We may only have had three days' racing so far, but every day has produced a big upset. Long may it continue.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Should they have raced today? Depends on your point of view

You can tell a lot about a team from its attitude to light and fluky conditions. There's no doubt that the wind conditions in Valencia - when they are good enough to actually race in - are a great leveller between the strong and the weak teams. So no wonder the big teams would rather wait while some of the minnows want to get on with it.

Ross Halcrow, trimmer on BMW Oracle Racing, hinted at just how touch and go winning and losing can become in the soft stuff: “In the light stuff a knot more pressure has a huge effect. Pressure is king out there and can easily make you look good or bad. The differences in boats start to come in at around 9-10 knots of wind.” Which presumably is why BMW Oracle are quite happy with the race committee's decision to keep postponing until the breeze really settles.

And perhaps it's also why Jesper Bank, United Internet Team Germany's skipper, would rather have been racing today even if it was on the margins of being sailable. “I think we have to do something about the lower wind limits…[We could be racing in] six knots if you can get the boats moving. You have wind shear when sometimes the wind mixes down very well and sometimes it doesn’t.

"Today you had a pretty good mix nearly all the way down and even with 6.4 knots the boats were loading up nicely. I think you’ll have to play it by ear and I know it will be a huge topic for discussion with some saying ‘no we don’t’ and some saying ‘yes we do’ (agree).”

Another answer for future Cups might be to introduce Super Maxis in the style of Wild Oats or Alfa Romeo, which can get moving in just 3 or 4 knots of breeze, and in 6 knots are capable of sailing faster than windspeed all the way round the course. In fact they can do almost double windspeed downwind.

Once the 12-Metres made way for the current ACC yachts, did anyone ever look back and say, 'I wish we could bring back the 12-Metres'? Not to my knowledge. Once the Cup upgrades to something a bit racier than these graceful but dated ACC boats, the event will never look back. Once you introduce boats with a higher power/weight ratio, you immediately convert marginal race days into definite race days.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Shosholoza looking forward to the Italian Job

Shosholoza's navigator Mark Lagesse revealed just how far Shosholoza's ambitions extend now, with this comment after today's racing. "The only boat that is considerably quicker than ours is Team New Zealand. Tomorrow we've got Luna Rossa and if we beat them I won't be surprised - and if we lose I'll be disappointed." Such a statement of intent would have seemed laughable two and a half years ago when the South Africans muddled their way around the course at Louis Vuitton Act 1 in Marseilles. Thirteen regattas later, and the Africans are a real threat to the big guns.

BMW Oracle avoids a South African upset

Well, when the racing happens in Valencia, it's actually pretty good! For a while it looked like we were about to witness an upset of even greater proportions than Mascalzone's scalping of the Kiwis two days ago. When Shosholoza pulled ahead of BMW Oracle on the first lap of their match today, every neutral observer - and quite a few besides - were willing the South Africans to beat the Americans.

However, when the Shosholoza crew fluffed their spinnaker drop at the leeward gate, Chris Dickson's team was ready to pounce and they sailed in typically controlled and ruthless fashion to overhaul the underdogs. That's tactician Gavin Brady doing all the concentrating in the photo above, with navigator Peter Isler to his left and the iceman Dicko on the wheel.

At least in the Desafio v Areva match the underdog French team managed to hold on to their lead and stick one on the Spanish team who have such high hopes of making the Louis Vuitton Semi-Finals.

For all the fact that we've only had two days' racing in a seven days of competition, this first week says so much about the Swiss management of the Cup, both good and bad. Perhaps someone should have listened more carefully to Russell Coutts when he suggested Cascais on Portugal's Atlantic seaboard would be the better sailing venue. Or maybe we've just been really unlucky with the breeze.

Valencia is known (by some) as the Fremantle of the Mediterranean, but the supposedly reliable thermal effect has been in short supply to date. Chief race officer Peter 'Luigi' Reggio expects the situation to improve the further we get into the summer, when the mountains further inland can be expected to heat up properly and start to suck in a decent sea breeze. But that doesn't really start happening until late June when the event is all but over. That might be fine for the America's Cup but it's not much fun for the challengers in the LV Cup.

You could surmise that this was all part of Alinghi's cunning plan, to have the challengers wallowing around in no wind for two months before the Cup, but that would be a conspiracy theory too far! After all, Alinghi's second boat, SUI-100, has barely had time to get wet, let alone test the 'can they, can't they' canting keel.

Looking on the bright side, at least these light breezes are producing some real upsets in the competition. The 'Big Four' are not looking nearly as impregnable as they have in seasons past. And for that, Alinghi and ACM deserve real credit for introducing the Louis Vuitton Acts. Would Shosholoza have led BMW Oracle so confidently in the race today, even if they didn't end up winning? Would Mascalzone have trounced the Kiwis last Friday if we hadn't had the 13 Act regattas? I don't think so.

The naysayers (largely from the other side of the pond who still think the America's Cup was named after their great nation, and hanker for a return to those halcyon days in Newport RI) have long gone silent over this particular criticism of ACM. Whatever you think of the choice of Valencia as a reliable sailing venue, you can't fault the Acts and the implementation of the Version 5 design rule. Both have conspired to produce what is set to be a tighter challenger series than we have ever witnessed before. That's bad news for the Kiwis, but it's great for us sailing fans.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Gram-Hansen + ITA-99 = Winning Rascals

So, in the battle of the Russell Coutts protégés, it's Jes Gram-Hansen 1, Dean Barker 0.

Everyone knows that Barker grew up in the shadow of Coutts, and became his regular sparring partner at Team New Zealand for the 2000 defence of the Cup. Lesser known is the Danish match racer Gram-Hansen's involvement with Coutts, but Gram-Hansen has done a lot of World Match Race Tour events as the Kiwi's tactician.

Gram-Hansen was already a well-established match racer in his own right, but his performance had taken a bit of a downturn until Coutts came along a couple of years ago and invited Gram-Hansen and his Danish team mates to do some Tour events with him. Not only did this provide the Dane with a chance to observe the master at work, but it also gave the 35-year-old his break into America's Cup campaigning, as a meeting with Vincenzo Onorato led to his appointment as starting helmsman for Mascalzone Latino-Capitalia Team.

As we saw yesterday against Emirates Team New Zealand, Mascalzone Latino have addressed criticism that they are a good fleet racing team but a pretty poor match racing team (which they were in the 2005 season). Things improved a little in 2006 with the Italians' acceptance that they would have to employ a non-Latin match race specialist.

Last year Gram-Hansen's aggressive pre-start manoeuvres put the Latin Rascals in the winning position against superior teams on a number of occasions. However they didn't always have the boatspeed to convert those winning moves to victories on the scoreboard.

The team has made another step change for 2007. Now that Harry Dunning and the boatbuilders have delivered a strong package with new boat ITA-99, when Gram-Hansen hands over to chief helmsman Flavio Favini the Italians look like the real deal. Not only can they win starts, but they have the pace and confidence to win races.

The victory against the Kiwis was no fluke, so expect more Latin fireworks later in this Round Robin.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Cutting through the crap with Cayard

Looking around the different keel configurations at Unveiling Day a couple of Sundays ago, it was striking just how different the bulb and winglet packages were. Horizontal winglets, angled winglets, winglets on the back, winglets in the middle.

Someone I was standing next to passed on a Russell Coutts anecdote, where the Great One is said to have offered this advice to a designer when Russell was asked where he would like the winglets to be stuck. "Mate, whatever makes you happy, just put them where you want because it makes no difference to me." Or words to that effect.

I was reminded of this when reading an interview with Paul Cayard on the official AC website, written by my young colleague on the AC Info Team, Paco Tormo. Paco asked this question and found Cayard on top philosophical form.

"Besides the budget, what are the main differences between a winning team and a losing team?"

Cayard: The difference is when to make a decision. If a team has been chasing after something for a year and a half and still nothing has come from it then it must be forgotten. Whether it is a decision about the boat, the crew or whatever, there is often a tendency to keep discussing and worrying about something, wasting energy when you just have to make a decision. One of my philosophies is that if two things are so similar that it makes it hard to decide then you should just pick one, because it doesn’t matter. It is important not to waste any more time on it because there is probably something else that will make much more difference, where you really need the time. If you get it wrong in that case you can lose a lot, but if two things are going to have a similar outcome, it’s not worth wasting any more time on it, since in the end it will be the same anyway.

Sounds obvious when you hear it put like that, doesn't it!

Click here for the rest of the Paul Cayard interview...

Phew!!! A whole blog post without any mention of the weather! Doh!

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Fremantle of the Med? Yeah, right!

Valencia has been described as the 'Fremantle of the Mediterranean', famed for its reliable sea breezes. Yes, well, enough of that.

Three days of no racing is not the ideal start to the competition, except perhaps for +39 Challenge, who have had three more days to sellotape their Version 5 rig back together.
Kind though it was for Alinghi to lend its Version 4 rig, the very mast that won the 2003 Cup in Auckland 5-Nil, apparently in anything more than 10 or 12 knots of breeze and the extra loads caused by these new-generation square-headed mainsails makes the stick look distinctly wobbly. Talk is that Iain Percy's shore crew could have the Version 5 rig back together by tomorrow (Thursday).

So at least some good has come of this no-wind situation.
It has also meant that Port America's Cup has precious little to talk about, so the chat at the Estrella Damm bar has been about those dirty, rotten scoundrels at Alinghi who have supposedly developed their non-canting keel. Yacht design makes my head spin, so if you want to try and understand more about this, I suggest you head over to Matt Sheahan's explanation at

Chief measurer Ken McAlpine is meant to be doing some talking tomorrow, so perhaps he'll shed some light on the subject. Meanwhile Alinghi will be having a right good laugh. No wind on the race course, and a lot of wind about their 'canting' keel. Classic smoke & mirrors stuff.

Baby Gap

Apologies for being offline a few days, but I've been home to the UK to witness my wife giving birth to our new son. You think it's painful waiting for the racing to start in the Louis Vuitton Cup, but believe me, it's got nothing on natural childbirth, and that's just watching it - let alone doing it!

Thanks for the congratulations received so far. It seems James Boyd has been filling in the spare moments between races (ho ho) on his America's Cup blog on with mention of the new arrival, so news has been spreading fast.

Thanks also for the name suggestions. Top of the list at the moment is Darbar, named after the curry house just an onion bhaji's throw from Port America's Cup, and where Yachting World hack Matt Sheahan does most of his best work. Indeed, so crucial is Matt's digestive system to the local economy that they've even named one of the Darbar's dishes in his honour. I kid you not.

Another suggestion has been to name the newborn after the winning skipper of the Louis Vuitton Cup. That would give us options like: Dean, Chris (or Dicko), Francesco, Karol, Vasco, Magnus, Mark, Iain (or Percy), Sebastien, Jesper or Pierre. However, we only have six weeks in which to register the birth, so this idea doesn't really work either.

The baby was born on Friday the 13th, so names like Freddie or Damian spring to mind. Our four-year-old is called Gabriel, so maybe Lucifer? The wife doesn't agree, and so the argument continues. Suggestions on a postcard please...

Monday, 9 April 2007

The Kiwis have yet to show their best hand
(says a Kiwi)

Peter Lester has some short but succinct analysis of the racing in Louis Vuitton Act 13. Peter is doing the TV commentary for America's Cup TV (ACTV), and is the ideal pundit because he has been there, done it with Team New Zealand and probably knows the Kiwis better than anybody.

Although he acknowledges that Alinghi looked very good, there are perhaps mitigating circumstances for the Kiwis not performing as well as they might. Here's an extract of Peter's commentary for the New Zealand Herald website:

Am I surprised Alinghi won the fleet racing regatta so easily? No. They had more to gain and nothing to lose compared to the challengers.

Emirates Team New Zealand used their older boat and it looked like the sails they used were not new. They also had Ben Ainslie helming.

Alinghi had a speed advantage in 12-14 knots-plus and we had those conditions for most of the regatta.
Because they've had so much time, maybe they pitched their boat for this regatta. I don't think the challengers had that luxury.

But Alinghi sailed very, very well. They came back from some mediocre starts to win races.
I think it is a warning shot for the challengers that they need to do better.

For the rest of Peter Lester's conclusions from the fleet racing in Valencia, click here to go to the New Zealand Herald website's sailing section.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

Lucky 13 for Alinghi

Louis Vuitton Act 13 worked out very nicely for Alinghi. It gave the Defender an ideal opportunity to check in one of the team’s new boats, SUI 91, and provide reassurance for Brad Butterworth that Alinghi is the match of anything that the challengers can throw at them.

Butterworth commented earlier in the week that in his experience it is always the fastest boat that wins the contest. “I think for me the America’s Cup is a design race. I think the fastest boat will win. At this level, against this calibre of sailors, if you have a slightly faster boat you’re going to beat them…they can all sail well and in their own right win races on any given day, but it’s pretty tough to beat a faster boat. At any other Cup I’ve done, the fastest boat has won, and I think this will be like the others.”

However, despite what Butterworth says, it seems like good boat design is going to be a less significant factor than in the past, unless Alinghi really do have something spare that they weren’t revealing during the fleet racing. Were they sandbagging during Act 13? With four wins from seven races, it doesn’t seem likely. Assuming that Ed Baird was driving the boat as hard as possible – and remember, for the American helmsman this was still exam time for him in the ongoing selection process between him and Peter Holmberg – then Alinghi is certainly fast but not significantly faster than the top challengers.

They’re certainly not toying with the opposition the way that they were with SUI 75 in the 2005 season. Remember that race in Malmo when Alinghi’s mainsail started falling down, bowman Pieter van Nieuwenhuyzen was hoisted at running speed to the top of the mast, fixed the problem, and by the top mark they had overtaken the Germans (whilst all the while the onboard GPS locator inexplicably switched off for a few minutes, strange that…)!
Click here for a reminder of that race...

All in all, I think the Defender and challengers gave a pretty honest account of themselves. The Kiwis started badly but finished stronger, as did Luna Rossa, while BMW Oracle looked great at the beginning but slipped up a few times in the middle of the regatta. All of them looked fast at times, but all of them looked more fallible than Alinghi who as I mentioned recently, display the hallmark of all great sporting teams or individuals – to be able to pull a reasonable result out of the bag even when they’re performing below par.

One thing we should bear in mind when trying to compare performances: most of the teams with two new boats were probably fielding their less favoured boat, and who can blame them after what we saw happen to +39 Challenge and their only Version 5 mast earlier in the week?
The fleet racing produced very hectic and at times dangerous situations, but how could anyone possibly argue with the excitement it generated?

Alinghi and ACM have toyed around with fleet racing, and now the genie is out of the bottle. If you want to enthuse the spectators, the TV, even the sailors, then fleet racing offers drama on a much more regular basis than match racing. As one tactician commented anonymously after one of Act 13’s epic races: “You’d have to get through at least 10 match races to even come close to equalling the thrill of one of these fleet races.” So the question is, how to crowbar fleet racing into the 33rd America's Cup?

Saturday, 7 April 2007

It's not how you Win, it's how you Lose that Matters...

They say that the measure of a good team is not by how much it wins, but how well it copes when things start going wrong. Well, on the fourth day of Louis Vuitton Act 13 in the America's Cup, we saw both sides of Alinghi yesterday - dominant from start to finish in the first race, and then somewhat error-prone in the second race but still able to salvage a third place despite a poor start and a penalty turn later in the race.

The signs are ominous for the challengers, as Alinghi looks the match of anything the other teams can throw at them. BMW Oracle's crew work has looked impeccable up until recently, with the broken spinnaker pole an understandable error, and a big wave washing across the bow yesterday causing the headsail to be ripped out of its feeder and damaging the headsail foil. Sailing upwind without a jib is never a good look, but all the more surprising for the fact that it was the usually very slick Americans who found themselves in this position.

Tactician Gavin Brady was philosophical about the mishap. "That is one of the things that can happen in fleet racing, where you get a lot of boats coming into the mark at the same time. It generates waves coming in from all different directions. We nearly lost two of our guys overboard. I was surprised they managed to stay on the boat. It was pretty impressive."

Brady remains upbeat about the performance of USA 87, which after all is probably to be considered the team's second boat after USA 98. "It was the first time we saw these yachts sailing in real waves. Our performance was as expected. We are definitely one of the stronger teams in a breeze. We know that our boat is quick enough that if you get into trouble, you can get back into the race."

Head of Emirates Team New Zealand, Grant Dalton, was pleased to notch up a first victory for the Kiwis, but he rated the speed of the Italian teams highly. "We were very impressed today with the speed shown by Luna Rossa and Mascalzone Latino. They had a really good day. Alinghi continues to impress. The boat is fast and the crew is very polished."

Alinghi pitman Josh Belsky puts their success down to good boat speed but above all some great decision making by the brains at the back. "It’s a lot easier on you if you can get off the starting line in the front row. In the first race we got away cleanly, Brad [Butterworth] picked the shifts right and did a great job in getting us out in front. Once you get out in front in this class you’re off.

"In the second race we made it harder on ourselves but we were able to scratch our way back on the first beat. We had our hands full during the whole race but it felt like the boat was going well. I can’t say enough about what a good job the afterguard did in picking our way back into it."

Friday, 6 April 2007

Big Teams show the way with good boathandling

The lack of racing yesterday was also a chance to reflect on the lessons of the previous day. One notable moment was on the first run of the first race, when Alinghi was leading after profiting from the better wind on the right. They gybe-set very nicely and the fleet did its best to follow. There were massive place changes here, with BMW Oracle who had been over early at the start, rounding the mark in 8th and leaping up to 4th place. The Kiwis also profited here, moving from 5th to 3rd.

Some of the other teams were not nearly so slick. There seems little excuse for this. If there’s one thing that any team should be able to do, it’s the basic boathandling moves. While a gybe-set in moderate breeze is not easy, it should be well within the abilities of these crews to emulate the top teams, but the differences in execution were night and day. Luna Rossa in particular should not be losing places in tight boathandling situations.

However, the wooden spoon for poor boathandling so far goes to Victory Challenge. This is a team that enjoyed a month of two-boat duelling out in Dubai, with veteran match racer Chris Law brought in to do battle with resident skipper Magnus Holmberg. By all accounts it was a fierce month’s competition, with one of the boats having its transom knocked off in one particularly close encounter.

The teams that stayed in Valencia had a terrible winter of wind, and therefore little opportunity to get the hard yards in. So how come it’s Victory that’s fluffing its moves? Some hard questions for the team to face between now and the beginning of the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

+39 Challenge re-step the old mast

No wind today, but at least that meant a reprieve for +39 as they spent another day working on their mast, but on this occasion their Version 4 mast which they had hoped never to have to use again. Speaking to Iain Percy earlier this afternoon, he sounded a bit down about things, not surprisingly.

Yesterday Percy was amazingly upbeat, but perhaps that was simply having survived after a near-death experience with a piece of rod rigging that fell just a few inches from where he was standing. It went straight through the carbon deck of ITA 85, so heaven knows what might have happened if it had landed on Percy or tactician Ian Walker, who was also nearby.

Today, the upset of losing their rig had sunk in. There is a massive difference between a Version 4 mast and the new Version 5 rigs. For a start the new rigs are about 70kg lighter and the higher modulus carbon makes them a good deal stiffer too. Alinghi is believed to have offered the team the use of its 2003 Cup-winning mast, which is a generous offer, but option No.1 is probably to repair the mast that broke yesterday. Percy doesn’t see that happening until Round Robin 2, however.

Dee likes the cut of BMW Oracle's jib

Professional sailor Dee Smith made some interesting observations on America’s Cup Radio today. The American tactician spent a lot of time sailing with Shosholoza last season, so he’s pretty up to speed with things in the Cup. Having strolled around the bases on Unveiling Day, Smith likes the look of BMW Oracle’s boats the most, followed closely by Alinghi, although he doesn’t trust that what we saw on Unveiling Day is what the Swiss will be using to defend the America’s Cup two and a half months from now.

The Kiwi boats he reckons look very ‘angular’, and best suited to smooth water conditions, which is more likely what we’ll say later in the summer. The package that Smith was ‘most surprised’ by was Luna Rossa’s square-looking boats. All in all, Smith was surprised how different the boats were. “They all have a different of drawing the line from bow to stern. They’re all narrow, all slab-sided, very similar above the water, but quite different below the surface.”

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Demolition Derby

Another incredible race today, but unfortunately at the expense of +39's brand new mast, in the boat for just three days. That works out to about 100,000 Euros per day. It came down during a congested windward mark rounding, with boats piling in from the port layline with nowhere to go. Germany had to make a massive bear-away and as they did so their mast came upright with their port jumper-strut hooking up the rigging on the leeward side of +39 on starboard tack.

The rig came tumbling down at an incredible rate. However, one of the Italian crewmembers remember to pay a one-fingered salute to the Germans, who were also forced to retire due to their broken jumper strut. Apparently the lady who rode in the 18th man position at the back of +39 was less than impressed and won't be accepting the invitation again.

Afterwards Iain Percy was his usual laid-back self, apparently unflappable even when all hell breaks loose. The Germans were very apologetic and have offered to help out in whatever way they can, but at the same time they are protesting Areva in what appears to be an attempt to offload the onus of responsibility (and presumably the onus of paying for +39's extensive damage) on to the French. The protest hearing has been adjourned until tomorrow after racing, and it will be interesting to see who ends up picking up the bill for this mess.

Meanwhile, China Team's new boat nearly turned into a submarine as a big wave came over the bow and poured in through the forehatch. The crew were waist deep in water below decks, but they survive to fight another day. +39 Challenge will be drowning their sorrows in beer tonight, but Percy hopes they might be back in action for Friday.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Fleet Race Roulette

What an extraordinary race at Louis Vuitton Act 13 today, and what an incredible advertisement for fleet racing in the America’s Cup. The mark rounding sheet (courtesy of above says it all. Snakes & Ladders at its most unpredictable. At the start, the Defender Alinghi breaks the starboard end of the line not by a little bit, but by almost a boatlength. By the time SUI 91 gybes around the committee boat to restart, the fleet is well away.

BMW Oracle makes a great pin-end start, meanwhile, with arch-rival Emirates Team New Zealand right on their hip. But both these teams fall to the back as the breeze swings right and gives Alinghi a sniff of getting back into this race. Even more impressively, though, +39 Challenge tacks off after a mediocre start, breaks to the right and picks up the better breeze on the right. Iain Percy seizes the lead, despite the fact that he can barely keep his eyes open after having sailed until midnight the night before in a test sail of their brand new Version 5 rig in the pitch black. The shore crew have slaved all night and all morning trying to get the mast to fit, and when they go sailing they still can’t get enough rig tension into the mast.

It was just as well the breeze was light today as otherwise the rig might have fallen out of ITA 85. But Percy and Co held their nerve to lead the race round every mark of the course – only to fall into a zone of near-zero breeze down the final run. The leading pack parked up behind +39 while Alinghi and BMW Oracle sailed ‘buffalo girls’ around the outside. After starting too early, it looked as though Ed Baird would be able to get SUI 91 across the finish in first place. But Chris Dickson held even further left and pulled on to level terms with the Defender. As the two boats converged on opposite gybes, BMW Oracle launched into a gybe and the front of the boat executed a perfect gybe-peel, switching down to a light-air A-sail which would then propel them into a very comfortable lead. Dickson smiled his away to the finish, winning by 3 minutes 34 seconds - not from Alinghi but from Shosholoza who were sailing UPWIND to the finish as the wind went completely silly.

Alinghi finished 4th, still a reasonable result after a shocking start. Poor old +39 were dumped to 10th by the finish, but Percy was still smiling as he crossed the line. What an amazing fairytale story if +39 Challenge had won that race, after a frenetic previous 24 hours when it looked as though their lack of funding and boat preparation might have prevented them from racing at all.

Grant Dalton's comment after a lacklustre performance from the Kiwis: “What we saw were some very polished teams. Only one thing is certain after today: there will be some big upsets before this is all over.”

Read my full race report of the extraordinary Race 1 on the official website,

Monday, 2 April 2007

The Italian Job

There were dramatic differences in the keel bulb shapes presented yesterday at Port America's Cup. The bigger, wealthier teams seemed to favour longer, torpedo-shaped bulbs while the poorer teams preferred shorter, stubbier keels. It's quite possible that the big teams are playing a game of smoke and mirrors, keeping their real intentions secret until later in the competition.

The expected light airs would suggest that a short stubby bulb is better for this stage of the regatta, as it has a lower-wetted surface area and is less 'sticky' in light airs. So maybe the big teams will change their bulbs at the last minute. The smaller teams do not have the time or money to play such games, and so their keels are likely to be a more 'honest' configuration for the weather conditions predicted for Louis Vuitton Act 13.

Although there were no massive shocks at the unveiling, one of the more surprising things was just how flat the Luna Rossa boats were underneath. So flat, in fact, they almost look square. So square, they could be Olympic Star boats. When five-time Olympic medallist Torben Grael, Luna Rossa’s tactician, was asked if the boats had been designed to make him feel more at home, he admitted the boats did indeed look a bit Star-like. “Except that they are flatter than a Star,” he added, laughing.

If there were few surprises in the boats, the skippers’ press conference this morning caused a bit of a stir when Kiwi skipper Dean Barker said he would be handing over the wheel to British understudy Ben Ainslie. Talk is that the three-time Olympic medallist has been giving Barker a good run for his money during in-house racing sessions, so maybe this is Barker’s way of saying ‘thank you’ to Ainslie for his role as B-boat driver. Or is it an indicator that Ainslie might also do some of the steering in the Louis Vuitton Cup?

Meanwhile, over the other side of Port America’s Cup at the +39 Challenge base, Iain Percy’s crew have been working late into the evening – and going for a test sail in the dark!!! – preparing their brand new, untested Version 5 mast for competition in Act 13. What a shame these guys haven’t had a clear run at the Cup without all the ‘will they, won’t they’ shenanigans caused by the ongoing financial problems in the team. This is a team competing not for the money, but for the love.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Read this before you place a bet on the Cup!

America’s Cup is all about age and experience, although of course a bit of money helps too. It seems the best thing you can do with your money is to buy Cup experience. The older you are and the more Cup campaigns you’ve done before, the better you can expect to fare in the America’s Cup, according to some analysis carried about by and German newspaper Die Welt. Placing the Defender Alinghi at the top of the table, followed by the 11 challengers listed in order of the Louis Vuitton Ranking up to Act 12, we have analysed the teams under a number of criteria.

(Click on the image below to see it in larger scale)

What the columns mean

Win Rate: The percentage of Wins v. Losses in the match racing during the 2005 & 2006 Louis Vuitton Act seasons.

Budget: The budget for the teams for the 32nd America’s Cup cycle (2004-2007)

Average Age: The average age of the sailing team, ie not including shore crew, designers, admin etc

Experience: The number of Cup years experience within the sailing team. For this calculation we assumed each campaign was worth two years’ experience. For example, Alinghi’s team has taken part in 103 previous campaigns between them, making their Cup experience 206 years.

Cup Wins: The number of Cup wins within the sailing team.

Analysis of the Sailing Teams

America’s Cup is all about age and experience, although of course a bit of money helps too. It seems the best thing you can do with your money is to buy Cup experience. The older you are and the more Cup campaigns you’ve done before, the better you can expect to fare in the America’s Cup, according to some analysis carried about by and German newspaper Die Welt. Placing the Defender Alinghi at the top of the table, followed by the 11 challengers listed in order of the Louis Vuitton Ranking up to Act 12, we have analysed the teams under a number of criteria.

Firstly, just to clarify one point, you’ll see that the teams’ win rates do not follow the order of the table. For example Mascalzone Latino (42% win rate) sits above Victory Challenge (50% win rate). This is because the Italians had a poor season in 2005 but followed up with a much better 2006 season, when each victory was allocated double points under the complicated Louis Vuitton Ranking system. We decided to use the pure win/lose rate from the past two Act seasons as a more accurate way of ranking the teams in order of merit.

100m Euro is all you need…

So, what do the figures tell us? Looking at the Budget column, it is hard to argue with the idea that money talks in the America’s Cup. If this analysis is anything to go by, the more money you have, the better you can expect to fare in the Cup. But once you start approaching the 100m Euro mark, the law of diminishing returns begins to take over. For example, while we have put a conservative estimate of 120m Euro for BMW Oracle Racing, some believe the American team has spent quite a bit more. Emirates Team New Zealand are reckoned to have spent the least of the ‘big four’ teams with a budget of around 80m Euro, and yet they are currently ahead of BMW Oracle in the rankings.

Show 'em how, Grandad!

According to the Average Age column, the older the team, the better you’ll do. Alinghi is by far the oldest team on the block, with a whopping average of 40 years. The other five team in the top half of the table all average 36 or 37 years, while the bottom six have an average in the early 30s. Under 30-year-olds barely get a look-in with the top teams. There is just one sailor under 30 in both Alinghi and New Zealand, and just two ‘nippers’ in BMW Oracle. So at about the point that a professional footballer’s career is running out of steam, a pro Cup sailor’s is just beginning.

Battle scars are good…

In terms of past Cup experience, the ‘big four’ have been very greedy. Taking our conservative assumption that every Cup campaign completed by a team member is worth two years, the top four teams boast 658 years’ experience, almost double the experience of the other eight teams put together, who between them can muster only 366 years.

Cup victories are even better…

If having Cup winners in your team is key to victory in the 32nd America’s Cup, then the picture is even more bleak for the bottom eight. Between them, they have just 7 previous Cup wins to their name, compared with 69 successful Cup campaigns in the ‘big four’. Alinghi is the runaway leader in this category, boasting 36 Cup-winning campaigns in their sailing team. Not surprising when you think of the core group of Kiwis like Brad Butterworth, Mike Drummond, Warwick Fleury, Simon Daubney and Murray Jones who have each won the Cup three times. In fact, Jones has only taken part in three Cup campaigns, so he has a 100% hit rate.

If Cup-winning experience really is as valuable as the raw statistics would suggest, then United Internet Team Germany’s last-minute appointment of Dave Dellenbaugh looks sensible, as the American was the Cup-winning tactician in San Diego 1992.

One team that is punching above its weight in a few categories is +39 Challenge. Although the Italian team has a stated budget of 30m Euros, it’s hard to see where the money has been spent. Less than 24 hours before the start of Louis Vuitton Act 13, the team were seen hard at work stepping their first Version 5 mast, a mast that they will never have sailed with before when racing starts. Despite the faltering, financially-hampered progress of this team, they are still doing OK in the Louis Vuitton Ranking. Maybe the experience from having four Olympic medals in the sailing team is helping +39 make the best of what they’ve got.

Comments please

So what do you reckon? Can a team defy the statistics and come from the middle ranks to win the Cup? The bare figures suggest that Alinghi is still the team to beat, but surely it's not as simple as that?