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 www.AmericasCup.com) 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, www.AmericasCup.com

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