Friday, 25 May 2007

Three into One doesn't Go

I don’t think it was with any great regret that the management of BMW Oracle Racing accepted Chris Dickson’s resignation yesterday.

It would have been a very uncomfortable three months for everyone concerned, if the former CEO, skipper and helmsman had stayed the full course of his contract.

The question that we wanted answered at the press conference yesterday in the team’s plush cinema was whether they would ever again place that much power in the hands of one man.

Kiwi journo Peter Montgomery asked Laurent Esquier: “In the 21st century, is it too much for one man now to whistle, dance and do a jig on a five-cent piece all at the same time? Can one man do everything? Should you have a separate CEO, a separate skipper?”

The answer, which was a little surprising considering what had just happened in the Semi Finals, seemed to be: “Why not?”. When Paul Cayard tried to do this with Il Moro di Venezia in 1992, he said ‘never again’. Peter Gilmour came to the same conclusion a few years later. It might have worked for Dennis Conner a few decades ago, but not in the modern era.

Having the CEO make the decision about whether or not the helmsman (ie himself) was up to the role of steering the boat, was what ultimately torpedoed BMW Oracle. Surely they wouldn’t make the same mistake again? Would they?

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Frowning into the Finals

So it’s farewell to Desafio Espanol after the Kiwis romped away to a 500-metre victory, on a lumpy playing field that bore more resemblance to the Hauraki Gulf on a rough day than the more serene conditions we tend to associate with the Mediterranean.

As you watched the body language of the two teams when they crossed the line 1 minute 18 seconds apart, you could have been forgiven for thinking that it was the Spanish and not the laconic Kiwis who had won the day. There was not even a flicker of emotion as the New Zealanders booked their ticket into the Louis Vuitton Cup finals. Not that the Spanish were anything like as exuberant as on previous days, but there was still plenty of hugging and handshaking going on between the crew whose regatta had come to a sad but happy end.

The thing is, the Kiwis aren’t in the entertainment business. The only form of entertainment appreciated by their demanding fans back home, is winning. Shows of exuberance seem to be interpreted as signs of weakness. When a question went up to Terry Hutchinson on the stage in the press conference about the lack of Kiwi emotion, Dean Barker sitting two seats away from me let off a ‘harrumph’, as if to say, ‘what sort of question is that?’

Hutchinson, an American who has learned to curb his own emotions when sailing with the taciturn Kiwis, said the lack of visible emotion was down to “a sense of relief. I think the Spanish team was a very dangerous team for us to pick. We were always prepared for a full nine-race series, so it’s a sense of relief. We try to be as flatliner as we can be with a win or a loss. The feeling was much the same as it was when we crossed the line behind the Spanish three days ago. Don’t expect us to do any cartwheels, because that’s just how we are.”

Hutchinson looked drained up on stage, and admitted as much. “I haven’t slept in about six weeks. It might be the nature of the beast when you’re standing there looking at potholes of wind and wondering how you’re going to get past them next time.”

He also revealed some of the Kiwis’ reaction to the shock dismissal of BMW Oracle from the competition a few days earlier. Asked whether or not the Kiwis had picked the right Semi Final opponents in the Spanish, Hutchinson caused a bit of a stir in the audience when he answered: “If you had have known how the whole thing was going to play out [ie BMW Oracle going down 5-1], I don’t think we did. I think when you looked at it on paper and our past results against the Spanish team, we chose what we thought was the right thing for us. We were fully expecting to be punched a couple of times and get knocked down a couple of times and knew that we were going to have to get back up from it.”

So, what did he think went wrong with the American team’s surprise demise? “That’s a tough one, it’s hard to know the dynamics within the team. For sure Luna Rossa raised their game and statistically when you look at the Round Robins, the first cross percentage and leads at the top marks, BMW Oracle was further down that list than you would have expected. It was interesting to see Luna Rossa get stronger and sail better, but you also have to question if BMW raised their game to match Luna Rossa. The scorecard would suggest they didn’t. It certainly wasn’t what any of us were expecting to see.”

Asked afterwards about the difference in team dynamics between the Kiwis and BMW Oracle (which had just as many New Zealand passport holders on the boat as ETNZ), Hutchinson commented: “I think we have better team chemistry, it’s one of those intangibles, you can’t put a dollar figure on it, but it’s something you feel every day you go to work.” The sailors on NZL 92 may not smile much, but they’ve got team spirit in spades. And they’ll need it when they front up to the slippery Luna Rossa in a week’s time.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Spanish ready for a breezy battle

Yesterday was a reserve day, today was blown off with too much wind and 2-metre waves outside the breakwater, and tomorrow there is a fear that the wave state might still prevent racing, even if the breeze is forecast to be a little lighter.

That means the continuation of the Semi Final between the Kiwis and the Spanish might not get going again until Thursday, the last scheduled day of racing. There is a reserve day down for Friday, but there’s no way the Kiwis would want it to go any further.

When the spectator fleet comes out in force on the weekend, Desafio Espanol seems to find an extra gear. Their weekend racing record is excellent so Dean Barker must get the job done by the end of the working week.

If the two teams do get racing in the stronger breezes that are now blowing in Valencia, you’d think the Kiwis’ boathandling would see them safely through. But Desafio coach Eddie Warden Owen doesn’t see it that way. “In the two crucial gybes in Sunday’s race, the Kiwis made mistakes, they gybed too fast, they weren’t sure what we were doing, and our guys really handled it very well.

“We put them under pressure. When you’re behind, it’s pretty hard to pass. I say to the guys, ‘Get round the windward mark first, it’s very hard for someone to pass you.’ In practice racing, if you get a boatlength ahead of your B boat it rarely gets past. I say: ‘Treat the opposition like the B boat, what would you do against the B boat? Feel confident, relaxed, he’s the one that’s got to get round the outside of you.’

Also, Warden Owen reckons ESP 97 really comes on song in the stronger winds. “We like the breeze, our boat performs better up the wind range. The Kiwis are pretty comfortable in the light stuff, it looks like they’re optimised down the wind range and we’re optimised further up the wind range. Stronger breeze suits us quite well.”

So, while most of us watching in Valencia keep on thinking the Kiwis need just one more race to close out the series, the Spanish are determined to continue defying expectations. Warden Owen says the team’s confidence is growing by the day, and Karol Jablonski is proving more consistent in the pre-starts than Dean Barker. There could be more surprises in store.

Monday, 21 May 2007

Alinghi sells SUI 75 to the Brits

Alinghi has sold its wonderboat of the 2005 Louis Vuitton Act Series, SUI 75, to the new British challenge for the next America's Cup, Team Origin. Although SUI 75 was originally thought to be a bit of a dog in Auckland (with Russell Coutts's team opting to sail the tried and tested SUI 64 to win the 2003 Cup), in its revamped Version 5 mode SUI 75 was a pure thoroughbred.

Alinghi dominated the match racing and fleet racing in 2005 with this boat, and SUI 75 was still a very potent weapon against the challengers' 2006-generation boats such as USA 98 and ITA 86. Only the Kiwis' NZL 84 could possibly claim to be faster.

So Sir Keith Mills's new team has made a very smart purchase. Ian Walker, tactician of +39 Challenge, says that one of the great benefits to the Italian challenge of buying hull no. 59 off Alinghi was that it gave them an insight into the way Alinghi likes to structure the internal workings of its boats, and many of those ideas were subsequently incorporated into +39's new boat ITA 85. Understanding an ACC boat's structure is arguably more important than understanding its hull shape, although in SUI 75 Team Origin will gain a great insight into Alinghi's thinking in both these areas.

New Zealander Mike Sanderson, who passed up the chance to defend his Volvo Ocean Race title to become team director of Origin, commented: “This is a really important step for Team Origin; buying our first training boat of the calibre of SUI 75 means we are tapping into one of the fastest training boats around. We are also able to get hold of it without delay - meaning that we can push forward our planning and be on the water here in Valencia as early as July 2007.

"We are continuing our progress in buying a second top quality training boat and other necessary assets to progress team preparations.”

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Off to Disneyland

Chris Dickson fronted up to answer the media’s questions this evening. He congratulated Luna Rossa and paid tribute to his own team BMW Oracle Racing.

“We’ve had a very strong team with a huge amount of depth in the sailing team, in every area. I look back on this week, on Round Robins 1 and 2, we had no glaring weaknesses. We were outclassed by Luna Rossa in a number of areas this week. If there was something glaringly obvious we’d have done something about it.”

He also thanked Sten Mohr for stepping up to the helmsman’s job today, a job which he said was a thankless task for the Dane. “We call it a ‘hospital pass’ in rugby, when the ball is coming your way but you know you’re going to get hammered.”

So why offload the job to Mohr? It turns out it wasn’t Dickson’s choice. “The decision to take me off the boat today was Larry’s decision and that was his call to make, he’s the owner.
“Nobody did a bad job on our team. Our friends across the fence, at Luna Rossa, did a much better job.” Asked what advice Dickson would have the Italian finalists, Dickson replied with a smile: “I don’t think they need a lot of advice, and they certainly don’t need it from me.”

So, what future for BMW Oracle and what future for Chris Dickson? “The future for the team is that Larry is committed to having the team continue. That was decided some time ago. The future for myself is I signed up for this campaign and we’ve got a bit of wrapping up to do for a few weeks, then I’ll be quietly heading back to New Zealand and taking my family to Disneyland on the way home, probably. And life goes on.”

Click here to hear more of Dickson's valedictory press conference

USA out, Italy in, Spain alive

A great day for Italy and Spain, Luna Rossa booking an easy place in the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals and Desafio Espanol proving the match of the Kiwis in every department, winning a thrilling match by just 15 seconds.

Every time the Spanish win, they celebrate like they have just won the America’s Cup, such is the spirit in the team. Fortunately they have a day’s rest to get their heads together and contemplate the possibility of taking another match of New Zealand on Tuesday. It is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility.

Having witnessed Luna Rossa trounce BMW Oracle 5-1, the Spanish must be beginning to believe that the unthinkable really can happen against New Zealand. There is very little to choose between these teams in terms of boatspeed. On these 3.3 nautical mile race courses, when the breezes are steady and moderate, there are few passing lanes. Which loads a lot of responsibility on to the helmsmen in the pre-start.

This is where Chris Dickson came unstuck against James Spithill (pictured), and where Sten Mohr fared little better today in another pre-start where the young Australian dictated all the terms. Dean Barker is doing OK, but Karol Jablonski is certainly causing him some problems. Even if the Kiwis do get through, they must be seriously worried by what they’ve seen of Spithill this past week.

So too must Alinghi, who it is rumoured are going to use Ed Baird in the America’s Cup Match. However Baird’s strong suit is not in the pre-start, but more around the race track where he’s considered a more consistent bet than Peter Holmberg.

There is a view that Alinghi has enough pace to get round the challenger on pure boatspeed and that Baird is the man to do that for the Swiss. Is it as simple as that anymore, though? James Spithill has always been considered a class act, but sailing a boat that was always a little off the pace. That no longer seems to be the case.

Luna Rossa are becoming increasingly comfortable with their equipment and their set-up, and it’s hard to see anyone getting the better of Spithill if he maintains this sort of form in the pre-start. If the Italians can maintain this upward trajectory they are going to be very dangerous indeed, a threat to challengers and defender.

Dickson off the Boat, Mohr steps up to the Wheel

Chris Dickson is off the boat today. Gavin Brady has taken over as skipper, with B boat helmsman Sten Mohr stepping up to the wheel. Larry Ellison is on board, to see his team racing for the last time... or to contribute to the beginning of a remarkable comeback for BMW Oracle Racing.

The last time Sten Mohr (pictured) steered USA 98 was in that disastrous race against China Team. If the American headstay foil hadn't blown up that day, the Americans wouldn't be in this predicament now. They'd have won the Round Robin and would have enjoyed the pick of their opponent in the Semi Finals.

But that's all water under the bridge. This is Mohr's big chance and it's going to be fascinating to see how he stands up to a James Spithill that's firing on all cylinders. The Danish match racing specialist joined the team last year as a test driver and sparring partner for Dickson. He used to sail with Victory Challenge.

A statement from BMW Oracle says: "The team has always built the sailing squad on the basis that there are two people for every position on the boat and it was felt necessary to bring some fresh blood in off the bench."

Chris Dickson said: "We brought our best package into the Semi Finals, but we have not achieved the results we were hoping for, so in my capacity as CEO I fully support any moves that will give us a choice to win." An interesting choice of words, "fully support" implying that Dickson was pushed rather than volunteered to step away.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

One last sting in the Scorpion’s tail?

Chris Dickson reputedly has the tattoo of a scorpion on his shoulder. The scorpion is fabled as a creature that commits suicide by stinging itself to death when surrounded by fire.

Today Dickson was trapped by a bush fire of young Aussie James Spithill’s making, as Luna Rossa chased USA 98 into ‘coffin corner’, the left-hand boundary of the start box from which boats rarely escape without penalty.

As Spithill harried USA 98 past the pin-end start mark and into the ‘zone of no return’, in a bid of desperation Dickson gybed around and tried to get across Luna Rossa bearing down on him on starboard gybe.

The aggressive young Aussie could have whacked USA 98 amidships, and the umpires judged it as a red flag penalty. BMW Oracle was adjudged to have gained advantage from the manoeuvre, and so the Americans were obliged to take their 270 turn immediately.

If the first penalty was born of desperation, the second penalty situation seemed born of frustration. Just seconds after the first incident, as both boats crossed the line on port tack with ITA 94 to windward, Dickson jerked the wheel to leeward, resulting in USA 98’s stern scoop swinging up to windward and thwacking into the side of ITA 94.

Both teams waved their Y flags frantically, James Spithill turning around with two fingers held aloft to the umpires (palm facing OUT, before you ask), demanding two penalties. Spithill got his wish and Dickson got his second penalty.

It was game over from there. Four boatlengths ahead, Luna Rossa tactician Torben Grael didn’t throw any of his 2.7km splits into the equation but played a much tighter covering game, to the relief of fluttering Italian hearts. The added bonus for the Italians is that they seem to have negated the Americans’ downwind speed advantage.

So where to go for BMW Oracle from here? One more defeat and the fires will consume BMW Oracle. However, another trait of the scorpion is that you trap it under a glass, it goes completely still, pretending to be dead when really it is waiting for its moment of escape – and revenge. Does Dickson have one last sting in his tail for Spithill?

Stirring Stuff from Wachowicz

It’s not often that a sailor will get applause out of an audience as cynical as a bunch of sailing journalists, but Matt Wachowicz managed it at last night’s press conference. The American navigator on Desafio Español 2007 said spirits had never been higher in the Spanish team, even if they were 1-3 down against the Kiwis.

“I think you need to realise we’re a young team,” he said. “And we set our objectives realistically in the beginning. We accomplished our number one objective which was to make the Semi Finals. The day we did that, we sat down and we made a new goal and that was to go out and do our best to win a race in the Semi Finals.

“Two days ago, we accomplished that goal. So now we need a new goal. And it’s not just as simple as saying the new goal is going to be to win one more race. Our new goal is to win more than one more race. As I’ve said in the past, we believe every day when we leave the dock that we can win.”

When the team goes out today against New Zealand, there will be no shortage of motivation in the Spanish team. “It just is not a problem for us - every day that we are here is just such an incredible feeling. We are in the Semi Finals, and we are so happy to be racing. You should come on board and see it - win or lose, the guys have never been here before and we look forward to racing every day.

“We know we can give them a fight every time, and they know if they make one mistake, or slip up once, we are gonna jump on them and go past them. We are not worried about motivation or losing streaks, tomorrow we are going to go out there to win - that’s the way we see it.”

To listen to Matt Wachowicz in full, click here.

Friday, 18 May 2007

BMW Oracle eclipsed by Luna Rossa again

A month or so ago, we media types were talking about how there was not one - but two places up for grabs in the Semi Finals, such was the perceived weakness of Luna Rossa at the time. Word on the street was that the Italians were struggling in pre-Act 13 training against the likes of Areva Challenge. The question was which of the 2nd tier teams would be joining the dead certs – BMW Oracle and New Zealand – as the other two teams in the Semis.

How wrong could we be? Now 3-1 up against BMW Oracle after another intriguing match in steady moderate breezes, they appear to be the equal of Americans in almost every department. Even the superior downwind speed of USA 98 was not in evidence today, with Dickson throwing everything but the kitchen sink at James Spithill down the final run but failing to unsettle the Italians who held their nerve for a 23-second victory.

It’s difficult to criticise a team that has just won, especially when the team tactician has five Olympic medals hanging around his neck, but why did Torben Grael put a small but comfortable lead at risk up the final beat by allowing yet another of these massive splits to develop?

We’ve seen some big separation between these two teams over the past week, but nothing like the 2.7 kilometre split that we saw today, with Grael going right and Gavin Brady taking the left. When they came back together at the middle of the top of the course, the Italians had gained one, maybe two boatlengths on the Americans. All that risk for that?

Then again, the Italians did round the final mark sufficiently far ahead not to be overly troubled by BMW Oracle down the last run, and the Luna Rossa gang looked more than a little happy when they crossed the finish line. In fact, maybe a little too happy. As Tom Ehman comments in his BMW Oracle blog: “At dock-in just now, the Luna Rossa fans next door worked a bit too much at being boisterous and exhuberant. I think that gives us all more motivation to go after them even harder tomorrow. No doubt we will come out swinging.” You’re doing well, Luna Rossa, but you haven’t won it yet. The Italians need to keep a bottle on their emotions for a few days longer.

Meanwhile, it was back to business as usual for Dean Barker and the Kiwis, after a solid win against the Spanish. Actually it was a pretty special pre-start by Barker as he pulled a ‘steel balls’ move on Karol Jablonski to win the right-hand side of the box, which he subsequently used to effect a ‘push’ on the Spanish boat, upsetting and slowing his opponent’s final approach to the line.

It was job done for Barker at that point, as strategist Ray Davies explained: “The emphasis was on being first off the start line and we put a little pressure on Dean to pull one out of the bag, and he did for us today. Certainly that half a boatlength lead was where the race was controlled from. We were able to set up to the left of the Spanish and there was never any right-hand shift they could come back on.”

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

The Overdogs get a Whipping

What another fantastic day’s racing off Valencia. We probably wouldn’t have thought so, were it not for the fact that it was the perceived underdogs in both matches who led from start to finish. But when you’ve got Luna Rossa leading BMW Oracle and Desafio leading the Kiwis, you’re just waiting for someone’s wheels to fall off and for the lead to change.

Well, all credit to the Italians and Spanish, as they held the overdogs (is that the opposite of underdogs?) at bay. Perhaps we’re going to have to revise our perceptions of underdogs and overdogs. The fact is, BMW Oracle haven’t led Luna Rossa round any mark of any of the three matches thus far in the Semi Finals. That is an incredible statistic, and a very worrying one for the American team.

James Spithill is pouring on the aggression in the pre-start and is getting the better of Chris Dickson. Luna Rossa have won every start and BMW Oracle have been forced to fall back on searing downwind pace to haul them back into the game. It can’t help that Dickson is without his No.1 choice bowman, Brad Webb, who had to pull out a couple of days ago for some knee surgery. No doubt Kazuhiko Sofuku is every bit as able a bowman but he’s not had the benefit of honing his skills and communication with Dickson and the rest of the crew during the past few weeks of competition.

Having said that, Dickson lost today’s pre-start battle to Spithill long before the start gun fired. After being one of the most consistent pre-starters of the Round Robins, Dickson just doesn’t seem to be able to match the finesse of the young Australian. Of course as any good helmsman should, Spithill pays credit to the guys in front of him. “I’m feeling pretty comfortable just because I’ve got confidence in the guys - it feels like we have got a real strong team and the guys are really digging it in on the handles.

“When you’ve got that kind of belief it gives you that extra boost in yourself. The guys have pretty much said to me ‘put the boat wherever you need to and the sails will be there’ and they have delivered. So it’s full credit to those guys.”

Spithill probably has a brief to inflict as much damage on the opposition as possible in the pre-start, as does Karol Jablonski for the Spanish. When you’re the perceived underdog, it’s the best chance you have of winning a match race.

Look how dangerous Jablonski was against the Kiwis today, sticking a penalty on Barker. It’s what the Spanish thought they needed to beat the Kiwis, although actually they didn’t need it, because they led NZL 92 all the way round the track, a mighty confidence boost for a team that had never beaten in the Kiwis in any of their nine previous outings.

Both the Americans and the Spanish made a mode change to their boats last night. Of course, no one ever says what they’ve done or why, but when Spithill was asked his opinion on what might have changed on USA 98, he replied: “The rudder. That would be my guess.” A real guess? Or a little psychological dig at Dickson’s starting perhaps?

While there was no perceptible difference to the speed of USA 98, ESP 97 appeared finally to be able to match NZL 92 for pace upwind, an area where the Spanish had seemed to be a click off the pace. From being very much the fourth of the Semi Finallists, Spain is improving by the day and is not going to be the pushover that New Zealand fans might have hoped for.

At last, after a wobbly start, all is coming good in Valencia. The sun is shining, the wind is blowing, we’re up to date with the schedule, and every one of the four dogs is having its day. Keep the good times rolling.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Dickson back from the Dead

A week ago Gavin Brady voiced the confidence that BMW Oracle Racing have in their boat USA 98. “I’ve personally never been on a boat where we feel we’re the only people that could screw it up for 98.”

The first two matches of the Semi Finals seem to bear that out, as Chris Dickson turned on the afterburners down the first run to reduce a whopping 58-second deficit at the windward mark to just 20 seconds by the leeward gate.

If the Americans ever manage to get comfortably in front, it’s hard to see Luna Rossa being able to match the awesome pace of USA 98.

But credit where credit is due, because both the Luna Rossa navigator Michele Ivaldi and his USA counterpart Peter Isler said it was also about picking good lanes downwind. And BMW Oracle found the better lanes of breeze today, as well as being faster.

“It is not all boat speed,” said Isler. “We are happy with USA 98 all around the course, the oscillations and puffs gave more opportunity for the trailing boat to look super fast than on a typical sea breeze day where it is more persistent. Gavin (Brady) and Eric (Doyle) did a great job calling the wind, it was good tactics on board and good sail trim. Boat speed is in play, but we have been playing the runs well.”

Overall, both afterguards sailed a tighter match today compared with yesterday’s freestyling all over the race course. However, the onshore conditions were much more predictable than yesterday so the passing lanes were fewer too. The first part of the final beat saw some close tacking until… both boats broke off from battle to go off chasing better breeze on their side of the course. Back to weather gambling again!

At one point the lateral separation across the course was more than 1.5km, with USA on the left, Italy on the right. What was amazing was that when they converged again at the top of the course, they were absolutely neck and neck, to the point where Dickson could initiate a luffing match.

James Spithill held his nerve to round the final mark 14 seconds ahead, but four or five seconds of that slender advantage were swallowed up by the difference in quality of spinnaker hoists. As usual it was the American boat that looked slicker.

Dickson was now able to put all sorts of pressure on the Italians, and when Grael opted to swap sides with USA 98 to claim the tactical power of the right, you got the sense that this was the Brazilian’s final weapon in his ever-depleting armoury.

Boat for boat, and manoeuvre for manoeuvre, the BMW Oracle team is just too strong for Luna Rossa – with the exception of the pre-start where first blood definitely went to Spithill. By far the stronger finishers, however, are the Americans, and they won by 13 seconds today.

Asked why BMW Oracle seem to make it so hard on themselves, why they’re always starting on the back foot, Isler laughed in reply: “It’s more fun and more spectacular! It is certainly harder on the heart, but with a great crew and boat, coming back is all part of the scene. Sometimes you are not going to come off the line first or get the first shifts so you have to have that ability if you want to win the Cup.”

It’s certainly highly entertaining stuff, and Dickson and Co warrant an Oscar nomination for the cliffhanger scripts they’ve been writing these past two days. Long may it continue. While the Americans are busy making Hollywood movies, the Kiwis are writing the text book on how to match race. And text books are very worthy but very boring, which is why I haven’t written about them today. I’m sure that will suit Dean Barker and his team just fine. They’d rather do boring than nailbiting any day.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Breakaway tactics see Luna Rossa topple BMW Oracle

Two more contrasting styles in match racing you could not have hoped to see today. With the wind blowing off the city for the opening matches of the Louis Vuitton Cup Semi Finals, the fluky, shifty conditions made it a tough call as to whether afterguards should be chasing the best breeze or defending position on the race course.

Luna Rossa and BMW Oracle Racing seemed to favour the former – chasing the breeze at the expense of tactical positioning – while Emirates Team New Zealand never allowed Desafio Espanol room to breathe. The Kiwis were all over the Spanish like a rash, and while it never meant Dean Barker could put any sort of comfortable distance between him and Karol Jablonski, at least it meant he won the race.

The Italians and Americans, on the other hand, were playing a much faster and looser game, rolling the dice for a six and hoping for the best. Luna Rossa tactician Torben Grael is notorious for going for the big gamble, and quite often makes it pay.

When you’re the perceived underdog, as Luna Rossa are considered to be, it makes even more sense to break away from your opponent. The more separation you can create from your superior rival, the less significant any differences between boatspeed and boathandling become.

Which begs the question why the BMW Oracle afterguard were playing the same game of rolling for a six. USA 98 is considered to be one of the fastest – if not the fastest – boat among the challengers, and no one can match the slick crew work of the BMW Oracle crew.

So, why didn’t they do as the Kiwis did, and keep it tight on their opposition?
Peter Isler commented at the press conference after racing: “The one thing that was clear was it was a very shifty day, and you had to try to connect the dots with the puffs. It looked like a day where you had to throw away some of your classic match racing tactics and keep a more open mind.”

The American team put their faith in the right, and it didn’t pay off, as they trailed Italy by 52 seconds at the top mark, an immense delta at this level. However, when Torben Grael took Luna Rossa back to the centre of the track downwind, it opened the door for USA 98 to charge down the right in a big puff of breeze, and suddenly that 400 metre deficit was down to zero again.

We were back into a full-on match race as Dickson tried to bully James Spithill out of his approach to the left-hand gate, but the Italians showed some good high-pressure boathandling to hold their nerve and protect the left-hand exit while Dickson made a dive for the right. At this point tactician Gavin Brady could have taken the fight back to the Italians with an early tack, but instead the Americans plugged on right and the Italians went left again.
Within a matter of minutes the Italians had extended the gain line to 400 metres, and this time they held the lead comfortably to the finish.

Isler said the crucial moment came at the leeward gate when the Italians successfully defended the favoured left-hand mark. “That engineered a split that you don’t want to happen on a day like today. Had we gone back over immediately we’d have been four boatlengths behind. How would it have played out then? A bit more of a dogfight maybe?” Yes, it probably would have been, and with the great benefit of hindsight, BMW Oracle would have stood a much better chance of beating Luna Rossa.

The pressure must be beginning to tell on the American camp. After all, this is not a one-off. BMW Oracle could have played a tighter match to the Kiwis last Wednesday in the final decisive match of the Round Robins. By opting for a big split they lost out to Emirates Team New Zealand then, and they have done it again today against Italy.

In shifty conditions it’s a tough call knowing how to juggle priorities between best breeze and best tactical position. However, for a team that's so well equipped for close quarters combat, it’s surprising to see BMW Oracle try to fight their battles with inaccurate long-range weapons rather than getting stuck in to some hand-to-hand fighting. It will be interesting to see if Dickson, Brady and Isler decide to fix bayonets next time.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Will Jochen pick up where Jesper left off?

There’s little getting away from the fact that 50m Euros for an America’s Cup campaign that produced just two victories – against China Team – represents absolute failure for United Internet Team Germany in the Louis Vuitton Cup. So, small wonder that Danish skipper Jesper Bank fell on his sword today at a press conference.

A double Olympic Champion in the Soling class, Bank comes across as a thoroughly decent human being in public, but the German team always seemed riddled with internal politics and infighting, and for that Bank must take a good chunk of the responsibility.

Germany’s first foray into the Cup might not have looked so bad if South Africa’s first campaign had not looked so good. With less than half the budget, Shosholoza finished 7th in the table and were light years ahead of Germany in every department.

One of the things that Shosholoza seemed to get so right was in committing to build a Version 5 boat and giving the team a good technical platform to work from. Not only that, but gaining that boatspeed advantage so early in the project helped boost the confidence of an inexperienced sailing crew. That was a luxury never afforded to the Germans as they hobbled round the course in the woefully slow GER 72.

It seems that is a lesson not lost on UITG head Michael Scheeren who said the team would build a new boat as soon as possible in the new cycle for the next America’s Cup. “The most important criterion for success in the America’s Cup is time - we have learned that. Therefore, we have decided to commission a new boat now. We will discuss the future with our sailors, who have been part of this campaign, in the next weeks.”

In light of today’s announcement, it explains why Bank looked close to tears at times in the skippers’ press conference yesterday. When the conversation got on to nationality rules, and whether there were any suitable homegrown candidates who could skipper a German team, Bank pointed in the direction of the Alinghi base and suggested there was someone over there who could do a good job. He was talking about Jochen Schuemann.

Schuemann is an old friend and rival of Bank’s from his Soling days, and is one of the most successful Olympic sailors of all time, with three Golds and one Silver to his name. But as we saw with Thierry Peponnet’s withdrawal from the skipper’s role for Areva last year and now Bank’s resignation from UITG today, Olympic Champions are not necessarily born to the role of America’s Cup skipper.

Schuemann learned about America’s Cup challenges the hard way in 2000 where the only thing to smile about with Switzerland’s first entry into the Cup was the syndicate name, the unfortunately titled ‘Be Happy’ campaign. Of course, as a key part of Alinghi’s 2003 whitewash of the Cup, Schuemann has since seen how a campaign should be run. But does that qualify him as the most appropriate candidate to lead Germany into its second Cup challenge? Possibly, but not necessarily. It will be interesting to see if Schuemann is prepared to pick up where his dear departed friend left off.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Barker puts Dickson in Detention

Did you know Dean Barker and Chris Dickson both hail from the same school in Auckland? Neither did I, until today when I received a timely press release from the Westlake Boys High School. Actually Desafio tactician John Cutler is also from Westlake, but he’s standing on the naughty chair after his Kiwi salute to Vasco Vascotto a few days ago.

Anyway, it was Dean Barker’s turn to be headboy today, with Dickson given litter-picking duty in the playground.
Dickson had the better of the pre-start and used his advantage to claim the left.

The Kiwis rolled off the line with USA 98, but after a couple of tacks, when Emirates broke way to the right BMW Oracle didn’t follow and carried on ploughing a lonely furrow to the left. By the time NZL 92 flopped back onto starboard, the lateral separation was massive.

At this stage the gain line gave a three boatlength lead to the Americans, but as a right-hand shift came in, the dial started spinning rapidly in Kiwi favour, and two minutes later they were almost 250 metres ahead. It was game, set and match from there.

The pre-race favourites lost it so badly that conspiracy theories are flying around Valencia. But it was just a bad weather call. The Americans wanted the left, won the left, and lost from the left. Which means that the Kiwis got to choose Spain for the Semis, while BMW Oracle faces a tougher challenge in Luna Rossa.

Not only will the Americans be ruing missed opportunities in today's match, but they will also regret that headsail foil breakdown against China Team all those days ago at the beginning of RR2.
Looking at how sloppy the Spanish were today, winning the Round Robin is a definite ticket through to the LV Finals for ETNZ, although we shouldn’t read too much into the home team performance.

After a big night out on the town celebrating yesterday’s passage to the Semi Finals, the Spanish sailors’ complexions were matching their sickly green boat this afternoon. We can expect better in the Semi Finals, but it’s hard to see Spain causing much trouble for New Zealand.

What they said in the press conference:

Dean Barker, Skipper, Emirates Team New Zealand, on the dangers of choosing:
“It’s always tough in any match racing event when you have the opportunity to choose, because the top four teams are there because they’re fast. You choose your poison, and we’ve made the choice to race Spain.”

Chris Dickson, Skipper, BMW ORACLE Racing, on whether winning the Round Robins was worth fighting for:
“I think it’s certainly worth fighting for. That’s why Emirates Team New Zealand were out there, and that’s why we were out there. The bad news is we lost a boat race, the bad news is we don’t get to choose our poison. The good news is we don’t have to choose.”

Francesco de Angelis, Skipper, Luna Rossa, on the value of proper racing compared with in-house racing:
“With due respect to my team mates, when you race another team it is more valid, because you have things at stake. When you race your own team, if you make a mistake you can restart the exercise. When you race a team officially, you have one chance and that’s it. It’s a totally different game, and I’m sure that in racing you always learn and grow. I am not surprised at the set-up for these Semi Finals, and I’m sure that the guy who comes out of this will be a stronger competitor.”

Karol Jablonski, Skipper, Desafio Espanol 2007, on being chosen by New Zealand:
“There is no easy choice, and those teams are very strong, sometimes you choose the team that you are comfortable against but then you lose against them. Dean made the right choice. It gives us the opportunity to pay them back, so I thank you now for choosing us. It’s great for us to race New Zealand. We are really looking forward to race.”

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

You Lose, You Schnuss

Magnus Holmberg was looking pretty dejected in the media zone after racing today. Hopefully the tobacco schnuss jammed under his top lip was helping to dispel the pain of missing a place in the final four of the LVC.

When the Kiwis made that disastrous start, the door briefly flew open for the Swedes to shut Spain out of the Semi Finals.
However the Swedish gybes always looked ragged (not to mention hard work for bowman Pepe Ribes who shimmied up to the end of the spinnaker pole after every gybe) and maybe that’s why they gybed away from the right-hand side down the run with three minutes of sailing still left to do.

They didn’t want to take on the Kiwis in a simultaneous gybing situation on the layline. That was a battle that Team Tough was bound to win. So when the Swedes peeled away, the Kiwis held on and benefited from the better breeze for another two minutes before gybing, and that was the difference.

However in the Swedes’ defence, let’s not forget that this was a late campaign, and it was the highest-finishing one-boat campaign (ahead of the two-boat Mascalzone challenge). So it’s not all bad for the Swedes.

Holmberg commented: “At this moment I can’t see that much we could have done differently. Maybe we could have cut down the build time and got the boat earlier, but then again we got a boat that was really fast and rock solid.
“I’m sure that when we sit down and evaluate the project we’ll find things that we could have done differently.

"But under the circumstances where we were last spring, I think we’ve made some pretty good decisions. I think fighting for one of the Semi Final spots with one of the smallest budgets is quite awesome, actually.”

Tactician Stefan Rahm sounded like he felt a bit robbed. “Right now we are probably one of the four teams that should have gone through - maybe. All the teams have been pressed by us, both in the pre-start and around the race course.”

What was surprising was that it was boathandling that seemed to let the Swedes down at crucial moments, and that’s something they should have been able to nail with the in-house training in their old boats.
Where the team scored highly, however, was in the boat SWE 96, a credit to the Frers design team and Killian Bushe and his boatbuilding team.

Don’t be surprised to see the boat invited for some training with the eventual challenger a few weeks from now.
Rahm said: “Together with Mascalzone I think we have a boat that is quite similar to Alinghi, both in terms of acceleration and volume in the bow which is fairly similar, so that might be something the challenger can learn from.”

Big Teams get off the Hook

Big news today was Spain earning a Semi Final spot in the Louis Vuitton Cup, even if they did lose to BMW Oracle. In the other matches there were some real upsets in the starts, although by the finish all the big teams had ground down the opposition to keep a clean sheet.

Jes Gram-Hansen (pictured above) made amends for his hiccup against BMW Oracle yesterday with an epic pre-start battle against James Spithill and Luna Rossa.
After an early dial-up with Luna Rossa controlling the right, Gram-Hansen pulled off a ‘steel balls’ manoeuvre to seize the power of the right from Spithill.

Two more dial-ups later, with Spithill trying to bully his way back into the right side of the box, but Mascalzone sought refuge by gybing around the committee boat and making a perfect start off the right-hand end.

Spithill got a bit greedy in his bid to chase down Gram-Hansen, and started a boatlength off the line, handing an early advantage to Mascalzone. It didn’t take long for ITA 94 to grind down the opposition with equal pace and superior pointing ability, however.

Luna Rossa seemed to have it all wrapped up, and then there was a late charge from Cameron Dunn (who steers the course after Gram-Hansen does the start) to bring the chasing boat back within striking distance. Unfortunately it was all too little too late, with Luna Rossa scraping the win by 7 seconds.

If Spithill got a little greedy, Dean Barker was positively gluttonous in the pre-start against Victory Challenge. The Kiwi tried to get the hook on Magnus Holmberg from deep in the box, and seemed to forget there was a start time to think about. By the time they’d given up on the hook, they tacked off to the right and started almost 25 seconds late across the line, while the Swedes started on the gun.

Tony Rae, who does runners on the Kiwi boat, commented: "Deano wasn’t very happy with himself today but it was a judgement issue and he realised that the timing was out and it put us a long way back, but we chipped away to get as close as possible at the top mark. I’m sure the Spanish weren’t very happy with us with that start."

Victory did a good job of holding off the Kiwis until the Swedes gybed off into the middle of the run, with Barker holding out to the right-hand side. The Swedes handed the lead to the Kiwis at that point, NZL 92 enjoying the better breeze, and once Barker rounded the leeward gate 10 seconds ahead, that was the race in the bag.

Still, some hard questions for Luna Rossa and New Zealand where time-on-distance in the pre-start is concerned. It’s hard to recall Chris Dickson having made those sort of mistakes over the past few weeks.

I managed to get a word with Peter Isler about BMW Oracle’s stunning start against Mascalzone Latino yesterday.
Click here for the Peter Isler interview…

And here’s Jes Gram-Hansen’s view on the same start, a rare aberration from one of the big discoveries of this America’s Cup. At 35 years old, he’s not exactly a young gun like the 27-year-old Spithill, but he’s every bit as confident, aggressive and consistent as the young Australian.
Click here for the Jes Gram-Hansen interview…

Victory gets away with 'The Hugo'

Everyone’s been talking about the Victory Challenge chase boat drop yesterday, or as Tom Ehman suggests in his BMW Oracle blog, the ‘Hugo Drop’ ('no strings attached and has to be picked up afterwards')...

The Hugo was a beautiful move (click here to see Pierre Orphanidis’s photo sequence), albeit done in panic by the Swedish foredeck crew who just plain ran out of time as the leeward mark approached at 12 knots. The mastman took a knife to the halyard and the whole thing fluttered gently to the surface, a spontaneous advert for the Corum watch brand emblazoned on the spinnaker.

Santiago Lange, the Argentinean Tornado Olympic medallist who does traveller for Victory Challenge, admitted: “Our arrival at the leeward gate didn’t go well. One minute from the layline there were two gybes to go. We had to make the decision to lose it but it is actually quicker to execute a good manoeuvre than to dump the spinnaker. For sure in the meeting today there will be a lot of questions about what went wrong.”

Certainly when SWE 96 crossed the finish line just 7 seconds ahead of the fast-closing ESP 97, Magnus Holmberg’s gesticulations (no, he wasn’t doing a Cutler) to his team mates at the front of the boat were not the gesticulations of a skipper delighted to have just won the race. The Swedish gybes were looking distinctly shaky at times, and the more the polished Spanish team through gybes at them, the more vulnerable the Swedes looked.

Just after the Hugo, the Spanish hoisted a red flag and, even though the big 490 square-metre Corum jellyfish didn’t get in their way, it was surprising they didn’t see it through with a protest that evening. Navigator Matt Wachowicz said: “It’s obvious that they did it for tactical reasons, they showed absolutely no intention of recovering it, they cut the lines and threw it over - and it’s not illegal.”

Actually Peter Isler from BMW Oracle reckons it is illegal, so it seems there is some confusion about this situation, but the Spanish probably didn’t see it through because it probably wouldn’t have got them anywhere. It’s only a few days ago since the Spanish protested Mascalzone over those naughty backstays, and so there is a risk the home team might start coming across as litigious moaning minnies.

Even so, with so much at stake – a place in the Semi Finals – you could have understood them trying it on. They’ll just have to hope that Victory don’t do the unthinkable, and beat Emirates Team New Zealand today.

Monday, 7 May 2007

+39 breaks its duck against Shosholoza

After so much promise in the fleet racing of Louis Vuitton Act 13, +39 Challenge really haven’t impressed during the Round Robins. The new Version 5 rig that was brought down by Germany during the fleet racing, broken into three pieces, was a massive setback for the team.

Every rig in the fleet is designed to twist for improved aerodynamics, and with the +39 rig patched up for the Round Robins, Iain Percy says it has lost that twisting ability, and the boatspeed is suffering accordingly.

However, today the team finally posted its first win from Round Robin Two, and against the giant killers on Shosholoza. It was all won on the start, with Iain Percy rolling off the line faster and directly ahead of the downspeed RSA 83. From there it was a calm and controlled covering job by Percy and tactician Ian Walker.

In other matches, the team’s lack of practice has really let them down. Today they sailed like a Semi Final candidate - although of course for +39 that horse bolted long ago.

Maybe Walker’s beard was the winning factor. After all, fellow Brit and Olympic medallist Ben Ainslie never shaves once an important regatta is underway, and it doesn’t seem to do him any harm.

Apparently Walker’s reasons for growing a beard are more out of a desire for anonymity, however. “I’m growing a beard so nobody recognises me,” said Walker this evening, embarrassed at +39’s lack of performance until today. “It’s not coming off yet, we’ve still got to beat Germany and China Team!”

No Excuse to Lose...

A feeling of invincibility is growing around USA 98. BMW Oracle seem very comfortable with their new boat, far more so than they ever were with USA 87. One of the lynchpins of the Americans’ enormous design team, the Argentinean maverick Juan Kouyoumdjian, says he’s very happy with the USA 98’s performance compared with the Kiwis’ boats for example.

Here’s a comment about NZL 92 from an interview with Juan K on Kimball Livingston’s blog. “At the risk of being wrong - we haven't sailed against them enough to really know - I'd say the boat lacks a touch of speed. That team can compensate with rigs, sails, sailing talent, but if you give that boat to any of the second-tier teams, you won't see them going any faster."

Tactician Gavin Brady is pretty impressed too: “What I like about 98 is the effort the builders put in to building it, she’s built down to the lightest tolerances ever seen, which maximises our stability.”

Brady believes this is the best boat he’s ever sailed on. “The first thing you do is you jump on a boat and work on minimising your weaknesses. It might have a really good fast mode or really high mode, but you don’t often get both. The nice thing with 98 is she seems to have both.

“My feeling is, if I was racing 98, and asked myself how I’d exploit her, well, she’s quite a formidable boat – she goes high, she goes low, she accelerates, she doesn’t stall. She’s an all-round nice boat. I’ve never seen it all come together before so nicely, the whole package, it’s four years of a lot of money, a lot of development, good people.”

The way Brady puts it, the boat is almost an extension of skipper Chris Dickson. Remember, Brady walked away from the team a couple of years ago because Dickson moved him off the wheel. Now that Brady’s back, he seems more than happy to operate in the tactician’s role while Dickson continues to steer.

“USA 98 has options, has modes, and one of the biggest features is Chris Dickson drives the boat extremely well. He’s very dialled in right now. I don’t think anyone is steering their boat as fast as Chris.

“He’s very confident with the boat. 98 is one thing, but having Chris Dickson drive it is the number one factor, it’s that package. He has a really good feel for the load on the rudder, that relationship is quite special. I’ve personally never been on a boat where we feel, we’re the only people that could screw it up for 98.”

Click here to listen to the whole MP3 interview with Brady in its entirety. It’s about 8 minutes.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Brady looks forward to speed testing with the Kiwis

Gavin Brady was on typically chatterbox form after today’s race against +39 Challenge. Brady is always good for a quote.

From what Brady said this afternoon at the media zone, he’s more interested in racing the Kiwis to be able to compare boatspeed rather than gaining that top spot in the Semi Finals, which would give the winner the option of picking their opponent.

Here’s a clip of what he said about the much anticipated race-off between the Kiwis and BMW Oracle: “I think it’s pretty important. Both teams are going to be full on in that last race, because we’ve only raced them once with our best equipment. We’ve raced them in flat water in 8 knots of wind. So it would be interesting to see some different performances in maybe more wind and choppier water.

“We haven’t seen the best of USA 98 yet, and I’m sure they feel the same. We need to see our mode against theirs. We’re going to have a couple of days off, and then we want to see how we mode our boat against the boat in the Semis.

"We’ll get into remoding our equipment, all our keels, masts and rudders. We’ve got different equipment we can pull off the shelf and put them on the boat. Hopefully we know exactly how to fight against them.”

Surely booking that top spot in the Semis is important too, though? "In a normal match race regatta, you feel like you have a massive advantage picking your opponent. Psychologically it would be nice to be able to pick your opponent, but really that’s just a feelgood factor. Whoever you don’t pick you’ll still end up racing them later.

"Race them sooner or later, it doesn’t really matter. In this regatta, coming 2nd in the Louis Vuitton is no different to coming 5th. We’ve got to race everyone at some stage."

Shosho will be back, but +39? Errrr... that will be a NO then!

As teams begin to fall by the wayside on the road to the 32nd America’s Cup, it’s great news to hear that some are already beginning to make plans for the next time. Team Shosholoza may have missed the cut for the final four in the Louis Vuitton Cup, but the South Africans have covered themselves in glory, and syndicate head Captain Salvatore Sarno said they would be back.

“Most probably Defender Alinghi will win again and if they do,” said the Captain. “It is not final but 99 per cent sure, the next Cup will be in Valencia. If this is the case I hope that we will be able to launch RSA 101 by February next year and have it ready for the first Acts in May. My plan is that we have a two-boat programme.”

One team that we can be fairly sure won’t be making a re-appearance at the 33rd Cup is +39 Challenge. If anyone was in any doubt about the team’s future, jib trimmer Stefano Rizzi (pictured above) left us in no doubt at the media zone. It’s well known that there is no love lost between the sailors and their management, but no one has voiced it quite as explicitly as Rizzi.

“I would never have thought that at the age of 40 I would be involved in such a badly run project, but this campaign will give me the drive to do another one, because it can’t be worse than how it went here, it’s impossible. This is the America’s Cup, and you have to do it well, like in any great sporting event.

“I don’t want them [the +39 management] ever to get involved again. Everything was wrong, from the poor fundraising to the lack of organisation. The +39 project was a blueprint for how not to do the America’s Cup. This project was on the wrong track from the very beginning. We have been dealing with people with not enough experience and too much arrogance. They didn’t want to learn from the people who had experience and there was a lack of humility on their part.

“It’s a pity, because the sailing crew is excellent. I wanted to quit the America’s Cup after this edition, but now, to wash away the dirt from this campaign, I must do another one, even if I don’t get paid for it!”

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Kiwi salute goes down badly with the Italians

In the grudge rematch this afternoon, Desafio Espanol 2007 bounced back from a poor start with some great downwind moves and socked it to Mascalzone Latino. Both teams were fired up for this one, which was evident from the exuberant celebrations by the team in green when they crossed the line.

However, Vasco Vascotto spotted a gesture he didn’t like the look of, and it came from Desafio’s Kiwi tactician John Cutler.
Vascotto didn't take kindly to this, and made his feelings evident in the media zone after racing. “It’s disappointing the end of their victory was marred by an unsportsmanlike gesture from John Cutler. In my crew I have Spanish sailors and he - who is a Kiwi - doesn’t deserve to sail on a Spanish boat. The whole world saw this, and I hope the Jury saw it too.”

John Cutler responded: “I come from New Zealand and the gesture that I made doesn’t mean anything. We were all partying between us [the sailing team] and the men from the chase boat, and maybe some of my gestures were misunderstood.” Cutler added that if Mascalzone had a problem with something he’d done, he was ready to apologise.

Certain physical gestures carry more weight in some cultures than others, but the America’s Cup is a multinational event and if Cutler made the alleged gesture then he was naive to think that others might take offence where a Kiwi might not.

A protest under Rule 69 of the Racing Rules for unsportsmanlike conduct would not be beyond the realms of possibility, but that seems unlikely. In any case, one sailor told me that he has been on the receiving end of gestures every bit as offensive from Vascotto in previous regattas. So a Rule 69 against Cutler would have the whiff of hypocrisy.

Yesterday Vincenzo Onorato said he approved of the rematch because it was the fairest way to measure the sailing abilities of these two teams. On the water, Spain won. Let's hope that will be the end of it.

Friday, 4 May 2007

49er Sailors flying high in the Cup

I've just published a story about 49er sailors in the America's Cup. There's an excerpt of it below, but for the full text click here.

Emirates Team New Zealand has not looked as sharp as people had expected in the early phases of the Louis Vuitton Cup. One of the reasons suggested has been the injury to the team’s strategist Adam Beashel, whose finger was badly mashed in a winch during Louis Vuitton Act 13. Fortunately surgery later that night meant that Beashel’s finger could be saved, although he has yet to recover to the point where he is fit enough to go racing again.

Beashel’s speciality is sniffing out the best lines of breeze from his lofty perch up the top of NZL 92’s mast. With the wind having been in short supply in Valencia since the beginning of the Louis Vuitton Cup, that sixth sense for finding the best breeze can be a race winner. The Kiwis will be pleased when Beashel is fit enough to get back up the rig on those light and fickle days.

Beashel is one of a number of sailors who graduated to the America’s Cup from the Olympic skiff class, the 49er. At first sight, you’d wonder what the connection between an ultra-light 16-foot two-man dinghy and an 80-foot 24-tonne keelboat would be, but according to Luna Rossa tactician Charlie McKee there are some useful similarities. “Downwind in a Cup boat you’re sailing quite big angles, like you do in a 49er,” says McKee, a double Olympic medallist and former World Champion in the 49er. “The other thing is that both a Cup boat and a 49er travel pretty much at wind speed downwind, so you learn to look in the right place for the breeze.”

Click here for the rest of the story...

Onorato happy to be buying the ice creams

Vincenzo Onorato called a press conference at the Mascalzone Latino-Capitalia Team base this morning. It was a typically flamboyant affair, with the charismatic Onorato in flamboyant and upbeat mood. And so he should be, after getting off the hook with another 10,000 Euro fine (remember the one from a couple of days ago for the paint job).

Mascalzone Latino have been fortunate to find Bryan Willis and his jury in generous mood. This could so easily have been a disqualification for the Italians, which would have snuffed out any realistic hope of reaching the Semi Finals.

The Italians held their hands up to moving the top-mast backstays during the race. Indeed they admitted they had missed the rule change from two years ago which forbids such moving of the stays during racing. So for the past two years, the Rascals have unwittingly been moving the backstays around without realising that they were infringing the rule.

When British journo Bob Fisher asked Onorato why the team seemed to be getting away with financial penalties rather than competition penalties, the Mascalzone boss replied: “I don’t know, Bob, maybe it’s pocket money for ice cream. I don’t know the answer to that.” Not quite the answer that Bob was looking for, but it kept the press conference amused.

Onorato commented: “We made a mistake, but the jury came out with a decision saying that what we did had no effect on the result of the race. I am quite happy with the decision of the jury, because they have made it from a sporting point of view. One win for the Spanish, one win for us, now it’s time for a rematch.

“The rematch will say without any doubt who is the best on the water. So this is wonderful, something I like very much.” Mascalzone Latino are certainly living up to their name. The cheeky chappies are among the most popular teams in Valencia, but there is a feeling they have got off lightly again.

Thursday, 3 May 2007

Walker talks through the 'With or Without Backstay' Dilemma

This evening the protest takes place between Desafio Espanol and Mascalzone Latino. For the Italians, this potentially is a make or break meeting, because if the Spanish succeed in making their accusation stick (of illegal use of the top-mast backstays on Mascalzone), then it will be two points harder for Vasco Vascotto's team to break through to the Semi Finals.

At the press zone this evening I asked Ian Walker from +39 Challenge about this whole thing of removable backstays. Ian says on +39 they make a decision based on windstrength as to whether or not they'll need them. If it's light enough to get away without them, Ian texts one of the shore team who passes the message on to the measurers, who must be informed of such changes before the race.

It all seems a bit precarious mucking about with removable stays, but it seems it's common practice in the Cup, although for some teams more than others. In the 2000 Cup, the Kiwis were in the habit of clipping them on for downwind and unclipping them when they weren't needed upwind. Once the Kiwis started doing it, everyone else followed. But it was a far from desirable situation. So to get past all the hassle and potential danger of this practice, the rules were changed to say you either do a race with them, or without. No in-betweens.

However, it seems it hasn't really simplified matters. It just makes it more dodgy for teams if they get caught out by a sudden increase in the breeze. "It depends on your boat and design," says Ian. "For instance the South Africans never use top-mast backstays. If you design a really stiff mast you can get away without using them, or it depends on your jumper configuration.

"On +39, we take them off the top of the mast and then you have to attach them to the bottom of the mast below deck, because the mast is measured with them on, so you have to have the weight of the backstays on the rig. If you want to use them because you're worried that it's going to be windy enough that you'll need them, then you put them on."

So if the wind pipes up, then you can't hoist your kite? "Well... you can hoist your kite, but it might look like a 49er downwind! It depends on your rig. For instance we haven't had time to find out if we could get away without them. Our jumpers swing right back and I suspect we'd be fine if we never used them. But until you go out and try it, you never know.

"The geometry of your jumpers gives a lot of support to the mast upwind and downwind, depending on the configuration. It's a design decision. If you've got a lot of aft sweep on your jumpers you probably don't need them. South Africa don't use them, but then they never use S sails, so they just sail hotter with an A sail and they don't need them."

Spanish protest Rascals over their backstay

So far so good for the change of helmsman on Mascalzone Latino, with Cameron Dunn doing a good job for the Italian boat in the must-win match against Desafio Espanol 2007 yesterday. The Rascals are still in with a chance of deposing the Spanish from that coveted fourth Semi Final place.

However, it seems yesterday's match between Mascalzone and Desafio is not quite over, with the Spanish putting in a protest against the Italians, who they claim made illegal use of their backstay during the race in question. It's an arcane rule, but basically if you choose to start the race with your backstay you must finish the race with your backstay. If you start the race without your backstay, you must complete the race without your backstay - which is a real problem if the wind pipes up half way through the race.

Why, you might ask, would you not want to attach your backstay? Apparently removing all that weight and windage is worth a couple of seconds per mile, and in the last Cup in Auckland, a man would be sent aloft in light winds to attach the backstay for downwind support, and remove it for reduced windage upwind. The new rules for this Cup forbid jiggling around with this on/off backstay arrangement. Either you use it or you don't.

It seems the Spanish are alleging Mascalzone did a bit of both with their backstay yesterday. There is a jury hearing this evening, and the Italians must be quaking. If Desafio's video evidence is conclusive, then it is hard to see the jury doing anything other than disqualifying the Italians. Unlike Mascalzone's poor choice of paint manufacturer a couple of days ago, which incurred a 10,000 Euro penalty, the jury are unlikely to look so leniently on this oversight.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Kiwi takes the Rascals' wheel

Five losses in a row?!! I hadn't even realised until Vincenzo Onorato pointed it out yesterday. After such a strong start, that is a disappointing run of form for Mascalzone Latino-Capitalia.

Is it the right thing to change helmsman at this stage in the game though? Substituting Flavio Favini for Kiwi Cameron Dunn seems like desperate measures, but then again, I suppose the time has come for desperate measures. This time next week, 11 teams will have been slashed to just 4.

Team head Onorato commented: “Five losses in a row have seriously affected our morale, it would be wrong to deny. In today’s sailing team meeting the burn from the losses was evident. However my men are not depressed but angry, with a real desire to recover and that is exactly the way I’d like them to be.

“We’ve also felt the fatigue from the last days. The Cup is a long and strenuous commitment, for this reason I have decided to change the helmsman, for tomorrow’s race, from Flavio Favini to Cameron Dunn. We have very qualified and capable replacements and now is the time to make use of them. I would like to thank all of those who have shown their affection and still believe in us: Mascalzone Latino is still very much alive!”

So can Dunn make a difference? Mascalzone suffered a torrid match race season back in 2005, and then Cameron Dunn was put on the wheel for the final day in Trapani. If memory serves me right, the team won both matches.

The problem for Mascalzone Latino is that they have tried to remain true to their Italian roots. Onorato is a true romantic, and wants to see an Italian team succeed where so many have failed in the past.

Trying to maintain a nationalistic team in an event where the nationality rules are so relaxed is like trying to sail with one arm tied behind your back. Probably the only nation that could fill a Cup boat with 17 home-grown sailors who are truly world class is New Zealand. And even they've got three
Americans in the afterguard. Indeed some are suggesting ETNZ is foolish not to have a British helmsman!

In Italy's case - strange though it is for a nation whose passion for the Cup runs deeper than any - there are few if any world class match racing helmsmen from Italy. Paolo Cian has re-established his credentials steering for Shosholoza but it's hard to think of any others. Francesco de Angelis made the sensible move of stepping aside to make way for Australian James Spithill becoming the helmsman of Luna Rossa. They look much stronger for it.

As I have mentioned before, one of the best moves Mascalzone has made in the last year is the appointment of Jes Gram-Hansen as starting helmsman, and the Dane has transformed the team's fortunes in the pre-start box. Flavio Favini's record as a fleet racing helmsman is exemplary, but match racing doesn't stop when the start gun fires. Perhaps Cameron Dunn's appointment is a reflection of that.

Let's hope the Kiwi's move to the wheel (plus the boat's new paint job ;) gives the Rascals back their Mojo, to borrow a Peter Isler phrase.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Wind stopped play

No racing again, but this time because of too much wind, just over 30 knots of it. It's either too much or too little. Shades of Auckland 02/03 perhaps? Disappointing all round for sailors, spectators and sponsors.

If TV is as vital to the Cup as we are told, then something has to change. So what's the answer? The same as when it was blowing 3 knots. A canting keel Super Maxi, capable of racing in anything from 3 to 33 knots, quite capable of sailing in a good deal more.

But - the argument goes, you'd have to massively overbuild the boats to make them man enough for the nasty stuff. 'Overbuilt' is a bad word because it's a byword for 'slow'. So here's a video of a boat that's sufficiently
overbuilt to be able to withstand the rigours of the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race.

Seeing as its sistership Wild Oats has won the last two Hobarts, there's no disputing the Reichel-Pugh/McConaghy pedigree. The boat is as overbuilt as it needs to be. A Valencian swell like we saw today would be no sweat. But what would it be like in a good, solid 10-12 knots? After all, those are the perfect conditions for a finely tuned, delicately balanced ACC boat.

Well, take a look for yourself. The boat in the video (and the photo above) is Neville Crichton's Alfa Romeo, just minutes after the start of last year's Rolex Middle Sea Race. As you watch the video [shot by my flatmate in Valencia, the inimitable Andrea Falcon], ask yourself if the words 'overbuilt' or 'slow' come to mind....

What goes around, comes around... but not always in the same day!

So, $102,600 to ride as 18th man on the back of BMW Oracle. That's what the Ebay bid fetched, so well done to BMW Oracle, good luck to the 18th man (or lady perhaps), and congratulations to the Susan Komen breast cancer charity which benefits from the proceeds.

It seems terribly unfair that on the very day they do this good deed that BMW Oracle should suffer such a calamitous breakdown as they did against China Team. But maybe God doesn't leave good feedback until He's seen the PayPal transaction has come through safely...

Oh dear, I'm going straight to hell for that one!