Saturday, 30 June 2007

Match Point to Alinghi

So Brad, do you still think the America’s Cup is a design race? No one asked Brad Butterworth the question today, because we know what the answer would have been – an exasperated, how-many-more-times-do-I-have-to-say-“Yes!”

After today’s race, I have to admit that I think Brad is right after all. In today’s 7 to 10 knot breezes, on the downwind legs SUI 100 was just plain faster. There was nothing in it upwind, but on the first run Alinghi kept on sliding up behind NZL 92, and once they had pulled in front on the final beat, on the second run they just kept on sliding further away from the Kiwis to the finish.

In today’s conditions, the only weapon in New Zealand’s downwind armoury was superior gybing technique, with the Kiwi ‘inside gybe’ taking about 10 metres off every Swiss ‘outside gybe’. So down the last run Terry Hutchinson kept on trying to engage Butterworth in a gybing duel. After a while, Alinghi refused to play that game and allowed some big splits to open up. It very nearly opened the door to the Kiwis just before the finish, as they closed to within two boatlengths. However, one last roll-of-the-dice split went against the Kiwis as Alinghi came home 28 seconds ahead.

It was hard to fault either sailing team today. In yet another aggressive pre-start, both helmsmen achieved their teams’ objectives – thanks to the fact that ETNZ wanted the left and Alinghi wanted the right. The Kiwi weather team and afterguard won the battle of the first beat, their call for the left proving the winning solution. But the Alinghi afterguard made the better call for the second beat, choosing the right-hand gate and hooking into some better breeze far on the right-hand side.

The Kiwi mastman Matt Mason commented: “On the first run we thought they would pay for going to the right mark and we were laying pretty nicely into the left hand one, so we were happy to go there. We got back on to port and looked just fine the whole way across. There was a lot of what we call rubber banding, as we say, the breeze coming and going.

“We were comfortable until right at the end they got a little flick of right and came back and they were right back in the game. We wanted to send them out to that lay line, but the first time they came back they’d made a little gain and we couldn’t make our lee bow tack stick and that was pretty much it right there.”

Both teams are sailing at the top of their game right now, their sailing styles are becoming more similar as the regatta develops, but boatspeed was a critical factor to Alinghi’s success today. Design is still a big part of the America’s Cup – to that extent Brad Butterworth is certainly correct in his insistence about this – but more than anything this Cup is being decided on good old seat-of-the-pants racing skills. And that’s exactly as it should be. Just when you think you’ve seen all the excitement that you’re going to get from the 32nd America’s Cup, up pops another great race.

After some very one-sided contests in the latter stages of the LV Cup, now we’re finally seeing the benefits of the Version 5 rule changes and the series of Acts over the past three years. Full credit to ACM and Alinghi for setting the stage for such a thrilling showdown.

However, most neutrals in Valencia are rooting for the Kiwis simply because we don’t want the action to end – and also because they’ve taken their setbacks with good grace while Alinghi have had the whiff of sour grapes when things have gone against them.

After today’s match, Alinghi’s confidence will have gone up a notch. The Kiwis are talking a good game, but I don’t think they can take three straight matches off Alinghi. Possibly one, but not more. Anyway, I’m sure they’re not listening to me or anyone else who doesn’t share their enormous reserves of self-belief. Much better that they pay attention to Matt Mason’s words just as they crossed the finish line today. “I just said to the boys, Australia II were 3-1 down in Newport and we all know what happened there. So we’re not going to lie down. Far from it.”

Friday, 29 June 2007

Bloodied but Unbowed

Today SUI 100 won a race in classic Valencian sea breeze conditions, a steady 14-17 knots, the exact conditions in which Alinghi had been predicted to be unstoppable. So all the pre-series hype about Alinghi having a massive speed edge is true then? Er, not quite. They won alright, but not for the reasons you might have thought.

We expected Dean Barker to make the most of the pre-start to try and rough up the Swiss before SUI 100 romped away up the race course.

Well, Barker certainly roughed them up alright, but in the ensuing drag race out to the right-hand side, there was little to nothing in it.

Heading into the start box from the right, Barker looked like he was taking Ed Baird into a conventional dial-up. Suddenly he spun the wheel to leeward and put NZL 92 to leeward and to port of the surprised Swiss. “Oh boy! He’s just done an Eddie-Baby to Eddie!” yelled AC race commentator Geordie Shaver. Barker had just pulled off a manoeuvre on the helmsman whose trademark is that very manoeuvre.

From there Barker chased Alinghi across the top of the start line and past the media boat, with Baird seeking shelter in the massed spectator fleet (see photo). The escape worked – to an extent – but the Kiwis still led back to the line, bouncing Alinghi away on to port just before the start.

The Kiwis accelerated, sailed a few lengths, then tacked up on the windward hip of Alinghi, using about a boatlength’s advantage to control the race. But then in a matter of seconds SUI 100 leapt forward, eradicating the Kiwi advantage in no time flat. “Here it comes,” was the feeling on the media boat, as SUI 100 rumbled forward ominously underneath NZL 92. But wait! The Kiwis were holding them. Indeed they held them all the way out to the layline, with the help of a small left-hand shift, and led Alinghi by 12 seconds at the windward mark.

It all went badly wrong for the Kiwis down the next leg, with one slightly ripped spinnaker exploding just seconds before the foredeck crew were ready with the replacement. Grant Dalton took the blow on the chin. “We have always emphasised reliability as an essential element of our campaign. Today that small tear in the spinnaker cost us the race. We had a little nick in the spinnaker which must have been a result of hoisting it. Just as we went to do a standard peel it blew out so that was the first problem. Then we starting hoisting but I don't think we had the tack on so we ended up with no spinnaker. That was a mistake.”

Once Alinghi swept past and into the lead, they never looked likely to relinquish it, although the Kiwis reduced the deficit from 28 seconds at the bottom gate to just 19 seconds by the finish. Ernesto Bertarelli admitted he’d been fortunate to win that one: “Yes, we were a little lucky there. But even if you rip a spinnaker it is because something has gone wrong. I don’t think it was ripped when they put it in the bag this morning. This race was won on the work on the foredeck. The guys did fantastic manoeuvres and we were being really careful to not overstep the line.”

One of the fun moments of the press conferences in recent days has been to ask Brad Butterworth, “So Brad, do you still think the America’s Cup is a design race?” The last time he was asked, a couple of days ago, he answered: “For the last time. Yes!”

Today, however, with no Butterworth present, it was trimmer Simon Daubney’s turn to put the Alinghi point of view. Surely they had expected to be faster than the Kiwis in today’s conditions? Apparently not. “We weren’t expecting to go out there in over 12 knots and blow their doors off. We knew that the ETNZ boat was a good all-round boat, and I don’t feel disappointed because I have always expected it to be a very close contest between two very fast boats. There is a narrowing of the advantage line all round… It doesn’t surprise us that the boats are pretty even.”

When I asked Dalton if he was relieved to discover that his boat was the match of the Swiss, he replied: “We never today thought for a second that we’d be at a disadvantage pace-wise, but even if you were – and you believed you were – frankly you’d be in trouble. So it’s the size of the dog in the fight, or the fight in the dog, whichever way round it is, you know? Emirates Team New Zealand is a team that can hang tough.”

Today, with the first big sea breeze conditions of the regatta, was expected to be a defining moment. It wasn’t. The Alinghi boat is not the rocketship that we had thought, and nor was the Kiwis’ crew work as flawless as we had believed. The 32nd America’s Cup is still full of twists and turns. With the score at 3-2, I’m still none the wiser as to who’s going to win this one. And anyone who thinks they do know the answer, is an eejit.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

A Tale of Two Grants - One Grimacing, One Grinning

I hope you like today’s piece of art contributed by an anonymous SailJuice fan. Today the high rollers from Las Vegas were on tenterhooks, hoping that the protest against them amounted to nothing.

Grant Simmer was simmering, not to say seething, when he walked out of the jury room after today’s mammoth hearing over what appeared a pretty trivial matter. Alinghi had won the protest, the Kiwis lost it, but to judge by the looks on the faces of Grant S and his grinning rival Grant D, you could have been forgiven for thinking the decision had gone the other way.

The Kiwis might have lost the protest, but they had tied up three of Alinghi’s sailors for more than five hours of soporific toing and froing between the two sides, while Dean Barker was sitting up at the swanky Foredeck Club just a hundred metres away, enjoying a couple of glasses of wine with his luncheon. So it was protest lost, but job done, as far as the Kiwis were concerned.

It all centred around some TV footage of Alinghi bowman Pete Van Niewenhuyzen who was raised to the top of the mast to fix a halyard after SUI 100 crossed the finish line yesterday. The Kiwis filed the protest after watching TV footage of one of the customary post-race measurement checks. The measurers asked both teams to lower their mainsails, without the assistance of a man aloft, to demonstrate compliance with ACC Rule 31.6.

The Kiwis lowered the mainsail without a man aloft, to the satisfaction of the measurers. The Alinghi team asked the measurer who had boarded SUI 100 if they could raise a man up the mast to fix a halyard (which wouldn’t be put under tension) to the mainsail, for safety reasons, to prevent the sail from being damaged if it came down uncontrollably. The measurer on board agreed to this request.

However, one interpretation of the TV footage of Van Niewenhuyzen could be that he gave the head of the mainsail a good kick just as the halyard lock was being released. A more charitable interpretation would be that in the rolling seaway the bowman was being thrown around, and that he was simply flung into the mainsail.

Clearly at least one member of Bryan Willis’s Jury was dissatisfied with the outcome, as the protest was dismissed by a majority – not a unanimous – decision. “This is not a clear cut case,” Grant Dalton said. “The fact that the Jury did not reach a unanimous decision points to that.”

The Jury left it to the discretion of the Measurement Committee to take “appropriate steps to satisfy itself” that yachts are in accordance with the Class Rule. “That means the Committee can have another look, if it chooses, at what we all saw on the television coverage yesterday,” said Dalts, the sly old fox.

Today was a huge distraction for Alinghi, who appeared to rise to the bait, but tomorrow’s forecast for a strong, steady sea breeze gives the Defender an excellent opportunity for revenge – provided SUI 100 proves as unstoppable as the hype around this boat.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Baird and Bilger back on form

Ed Baird answered his many critics with a peach of a start today, defending the right and winding SUI 100 up to speed, bang on the line and pointing high as the gun fired. Dean Barker and the Kiwis were happy to take the left, based on the weather call from ‘Clouds’ Badham that a shift was coming from that side. However NZL 92 was just a touch off the line at start time, and Baird did a good job of living on the hip of the Kiwis.

The gain line swung back and forward but never quite turned in Kiwi favour. That half-boatlength advantage off the start line stood the Swiss in good stead, and that left-hand shift just wasn’t coming. Alinghi dragged the match all the way out to the port layline. Terry Hutchinson commented: The way the breeze was off the start line, we didn’t see it staying right so long, and it only came left with a minute to the lay line. That was frustrating.”

Strategist Murray Jones painted the picture from the Defender’s perspective: “We got a last minute call from Jon Bilger, our weather man, to take the right and Ed did a fantastic job in the pre-start, so we got a beautiful start to the right of Emirates Team New Zealand. We eventually managed to get better boatspeed and that was really the race won as we managed to hold all the way out to the layline and capitalise on that.”

So Ed Baird redeemed himself after a good start, and Jon Bilger made up for yesterday’s oversight when the Kiwis hooked into that big right-hander up the first beat of the epic Race 3. Ed was even allowed to make a media appearance (his first for weeks) at the Alinghi base press conference. Having won today’s race by 30 seconds and levelling the series at 2-2, the Alinghi helm was asked who had the momentum now: “One of the interesting things about momentum is that it is usually viewed very differently from the outside than it is experienced from the inside. I think what we are trying to do is put ourselves in a position to win every race and so far we are doing that. A couple of things haven’t gone our way but all we can do is to keep trying.”

After being strangely quiet about his helmsman over the past few days, Brad Butterworth was full of praise today: “I think Ed has been sailing the boat very well and you can’t ask for anything else. He has done all that has been asked of him, upwind and downwind he was pretty happy. He has been having a pretty good time, and hasn’t won all the races but for no weakness of his. I think he is going to get stronger as the regatta goes on.”

Today’s victory was certainly an important morale booster for the team, and a momentum blocker for the Kiwis. However, ETNZ have put a flea in Alinghi’s ear with a protest due to be heard tomorrow morning over whether or not the Defender is capable of lowering the Alinghi mainsail without sending a man up the rig. Alinghi were asked to demonstrate this after the race following a spot check by the measurement committee.

Alinghi weather spotter Murray Jones explained: “They elected to do a random measurement check on our boat today. One was to ensure that the mainsail can release off the main halyard lock without any assistance. So with the big waves we asked the guy whether we could put the halyard on loosely so the whole thing didn’t fall down and break battens and damage stuff when you actually do release it. So we tripped it off and that was that.”

All of which sounds fair enough, but have ETNZ spotted something that the measurers missed, or are they just trying to ruin their opponents’ day of rest? Could be some mind games going on here. Despite today’s loss, the Kiwis are feeling increasingly bullish about their prospects. Terry Hutchinson, on being asked if he agreed with Butterworth’s assessment of race 3 as being akin to a lottery, fired back: “No! He loses a race because of spectators and because of windshifts. That would be like me saying we lost the race today because the wind went right.”

Clearly, Hutchinson and his team mates draw strength from Alinghi’s extraordinary reaction yesterday. “It probably tells you they’re bunched.” Bunched? “Tense, nervous, high anxiety, all those things. They are the Defender and they have a lot to lose. Anything that helps put the pressure on them – happy to have it on them.”

“I think they’d probably prefer a 14 knot regatta with small shifts. That plays to their strengths.” Unfortunately for Hutchinson, that is more or less what the weather forecasters are predicting for the next two races scheduled on Friday and Saturday. Valencia may be returning to conditions closer to what Ernesto Bertarelli had in mind when he selected the venue, and when Rolf Vrolijk designed SUI 100, so hard questions will be asked of the Kiwis in the coming days.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Viva Las Vegas!

Call it a lottery, call it tiddlywinks, call it Las Vegas, Race 3 of the 32nd America’s Cup was one of the all time greats. With the wind blowing 7 to 9 knots in an enormous swell, and the breeze shifting through 20 degrees or more, this was a hair-raising rollercoaster ride in slow motion.

We witnessed another great pre-start, with Ed Baird getting the better of Dean Barker on this occasion – or did he? On the face of it, bouncing the Kiwis into a tack with just 10 seconds to the start, while SUI 100 launched off the line at speed – 8 seconds ahead – looked like an early victory to the Swiss.

But a few minutes later it became apparent that Barker had been prepared to bet his shirt on winning the right. When NZL 92 hooked into a 20-degree right-hand shift with a knot more pressure, the Kiwis were launched. Barker’s start didn’t look so silly after all.

However, it was a big right-hand shift that also proved the Kiwis’ undoing as they approached the leeward gate still well in the lead. What was meant to be a ‘one-and-in’ to the right-hand mark suddenly became a downspeed drift. When Richard Meacham briefly fell overboard, it only exacerbated the problem, and in the moments of crisis the spinnaker got caught up in the jib sheeting system.

Alinghi rounded behind the same mark and sailed up the inside of the wounded Kiwi boat. I won’t go into the nitty gritty of the next leg, but we saw some spectacular match racing moves, particularly from Alinghi who converted a 1:02 deficit at the bottom to a 15 second lead at the top.

On the run to the finish SUI 100 was looking faster downhill, but Brad Butterworth seemed happy to let the Kiwis to break to the right while Murray Jones up the rig put his faith in the left. With more than a kilometre of lateral separation, this was high-stakes dice-rolling. However it was Adam Beashel’s faith in the right that paid off as the Kiwis crossed the finish line 25 seconds ahead of Alinghi. What a race!

And what reactions afterwards.

I’ll start with the less surprising one first, from Adam Beashel who gave the Kiwi reaction to racing in conditions that were perhaps not ideal but which contributed to one of the greatest races in 156 years of the Cup. “Thanks to the race committee for getting the race underway - as we would have hoped for them to get a race underway today. There was enough breeze to go most of the time, and it was shifting around a lot.”

Compare and contrast with the Alinghi response.

First from pitman Dean Phipps: “We have worked for four years towards having an even boat race, and you could have played tiddlywinks today and had the same result. Just tossed the coin. Should have stayed ashore, I guess.”

Next from trimmer Simon Daubney: “This one was a little bit of a raffle, a little bit of a lottery. We were pretty surprised the race went ahead as it was anyway 15 minutes before they had abandoned the start for a 30 degree difference of the breeze at the top mark, and even on different ends of the start line had up to 20 degrees difference.

“So we were thinking that was a smart move to postpone it - and all of a sudden there seems to be a big rush to get a race off a minute before the time they are allowed to. And there is this big rush to go out there and sail around in those shitty conditions, which is pretty disappointing really after you work so hard for those little gains and to try and improve your performance.

“On a day testing at any time like that you think ‘hopefully we won’t be sailing in these conditions,’ so certainly you wouldn’t spend too much time working away at them.’”

And now this from Mr Alinghi himself, Ernesto Bertarelli. “It was a very strange day, we waited two hours to start that race and honestly the Race Committee starts the race a second before the time limit on a situation which was no better than it had been for the last two hours - high volatility, unpredictable wind which is why we waited….we took a good start because we forced TNZ to tack away, we were leading at the start but then there was the 20 degree shift. I mean, you can’t beat a 20 degree shift from nowhere. We were at one point 400 metres behind and I think we raced the boat really well.

“The boat is very fast and even in light conditions like that we came back, we had a nice race, were in front and then on the last leg it’s impossible to control, when you gybe too often you pay a lot for the gybe but anyway the guy that is behind is going to gybe away. I think we raced well but we were just unlucky.”

Alinghi refused to believe that ETNZ had been anything other than lucky being bounced to the right into that 20 degree gift from the heavens. Daubney commented: “I’m not too sure about their weather call. If they had a clear call that the wind was going to go 20 degrees right on the first beat then that it is certainly something that our weather team hadn’t picked up. So maybe it wasn’t a lottery and maybe their weather team did better than ours but we certainly weren’t expecting that much of a shift and that much of a velocity change.”

Now, bear in mind that when Adam Beashel gave this answer he hadn’t heard any of the Alinghi reactions over at their press conference at the Defender base. So I think this is a pretty honest reaction from Beashel. Sounds to me like the Kiwis knew the ‘lucky dice’ had been loaded in favour of the right. “For us it was switching back and forth quite a lot – early on there was a lot of call to the left but as things got closer, it all started to even up.

“Clouds [ETNZ weather expert Roger Badham] and ourselves on the boat just before entry thought there was a pretty big right-hand shift to come and it was called so it nearly became a ‘must win right’ for us, and Deano did a good job of winning that right-hand side. It was a little downspeed, it would have been nice to be a little quicker but we were hopeful that the right was going to come. And it came as we expected so it all turned well for us.”

So, maybe there was a little skill involved today after all. After today’s reactions from the Defender, Alinghi are sounding a teensy bit Whingi. Mr Bertarelli described today’s race as “a little bit of Las Vegas, which is why I don’t think the race should have happened”. After today’s thriller, the rest of Valencia is singing: “Viva Las Vegas!”

Monday, 25 June 2007

Team Spirit v Boatspeed

If Emirates Team New Zealand fail to win this America’s Cup, it won’t be through lack of team spirit. One of the advantages of coming through the challenger series is that they have had to take a few knocks along the way. Provided you can take those knocks then you’ll be the better for it – you know, the ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ theory.

Alinghi have had not had the same ‘luxury’ of the LVC rollercoaster ride. So when the Defender suffers a setback like yesterday’s extraordinary example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, they’re in new territory. It asks much tougher questions about team spirit.

According to a friend who watched the race from the Alinghi base yesterday afternoon, the atmosphere turned ‘funereal’ the moment that NZL 92 nudged into the lead.
Word is that Brad got out of the wrong side of bed yesterday morning, and that the goings-on out on the race course only exacerbated an already bad mood.

Perhaps this accounts for his lapse of concentration up the second beat, and his colourful choice of language in encouraging a wayward spectator craft to vacate the field of play. “Get that fxxxing boat off the fxxxing course” certainly got his point across, but offended the ears of some who heard his tirade over the live television feed.

The man sounded rattled, even if at this stage he was in the lead.
It was also interesting to note that once ETNZ pulled into the lead, Brad had removed his customary wraparound sunglasses and there was the ever-so-slightest look of concern on his usually more relaxed features. Brad is the coolest cat in the Cup, so you have to look hard for any signs of worry, but I think they were there.

It would be fascinating to know who his old mate Russell Coutts is rooting for in this intriguing match. Coutts is in town doing some commentary for New Zealand TV, and without mentioning Ed Baird’s name, he noted the “poor lee-bow tack” made by Alinghi. Baird could and should have tacked closer to NZL 92’s lee bow, and if he had, it just might have just given the Defender a hope of holding the lead.

Baird is not a like-for-like replacement for Russell Coutts. To be fair to Baird, who is? However, Alinghi have always seemed confident that they could defend the 32nd Cup without the most accomplished helmsman in the world, but after yesterday it didn’t look so likely. Whatever Coutts might feel for Brad and his other old muckers (Jones, Phipps, Daubney & Fleury) on board Alinghi, a part of him must also be hoping that the Defender fails without him. Conversely Ernesto Bertarelli would love to prove that Coutts wasn’t quite so crucial to a successful defence as perhaps Coutts would like to believe. It will be fascinating to see who gets the last laugh here.

Returning to the question of helmsmen, one wonders if there is the same level of support for Ed Baird as Dean Barker enjoys in the ETNZ camp? While ETNZ team members give praise to Barker for his starting ability or his momentous piece of precision steering at the turning point of yesterday’s match, it’s hard to think of a time when any of Baird’s comrades have been similarly effusive with praise for their helmsman. In fact it’s hard to think of a time when Mr Ed has even been mentioned. It would be easy to read too much into this, but there just isn’t the same sense of team spirit emanating from the Defender as you get from the Challenger.

It’s a shame Mr Ed hasn’t been available for comment at any point in the past few weeks because he’s always good for a quote. It seems like the Alinghi philosophy is to put a protective wall around their helmsman, to shield him from the glare of the media. Does this cotton wool approach really work? ETNZ seem to take the complete opposite view, with Barker appearing in front of the media every time the Kiwis lose a race. The media admires that courage, and it helps take the sting out of the media’s tail when a key player does front up to answer the hard questions. You could argue that keeping Ed out of the spotlight only increases the pressure on him and the rest of the team.

This all makes it sound terribly gloomy for the Defender’s prospects, but for my money they are still the clear favourite. A chance meeting with one of the Luna Rossa afterguard today confirmed my (and almost everybody else’s) view that SUI 100 is the superior toy. Based on his observations from the two informal race days between the Italians and the Swiss, my Luna Rossa friend said the boat looked awesome in “stability conditions” as he put it, ie in 10 knots or more. He believes there is something special going on with that boat, perhaps the non-canting keel that caused such speculation a few weeks back, but which seems to have fallen off the media’s radar screen of late.

From a Kiwi perspective, at least the breeze looks set to be light tomorrow, and with an easterly sea breeze expected to veer round to the south-east, Dean Barker will most likely be fighting hard to defend his starboard entry advantage. From what we’ve seen of the starts so far, Barker should have no problem doing that, and NZL 92 looks to just about be the match for SUI 100 in the softer stuff.

It’s unlikely to be so light for the remainder of the series, however. Today for example, it was stinking hot and blowing a solid 18 to 19 knots all day. When one of those comes along, SUI 100 will be a hard machine to stop. The boat’s one weak spot seems to be that it takes a while to get rumbling out of manoeuvres – whether out of the start, out of a tack or a gybe. It’s a chink that the Kiwis will be keen to capitalise on.

Everything about the Alinghi campaign seems focused on straight-line speed, from the team’s self-confessed 95% focus on testing and development at the expense of boathandling practice, to the choice of Baird over Holmberg as the faster straight-line helmsman.
Which means that the Kiwis’ best chance is to engage the Swiss speedsters in as much manoeuvring as possible, both before and after the start. Throw them off the boatspeed game.

Brad Butterworth continues to insist that the America’s Cup is a design race above all else, but it is up to Dean Barker, Terry Hutchinson et al. to prove otherwise. That good old seat-of-the-pants sailing can be the deciding factor of the 32nd America’s Cup after all.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Brad does a Torben

The turning point in today’s match was very reminiscent of the penultimate match of the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals. Just as Luna Rossa tacked ahead and to leeward of Emirates Team New Zealand in that match, so Alinghi did the same today – not quite tacking close enough to NZL 92 to be able to give them dirty air and allowing Dean Barker to eke his way into the lead.

Just a couple of minutes earlier, AC radio commentator Geordie Shaver made the observation that Brad Butterworth was doing “the Corral”. After rounding the left-hand gate mark, Alinghi crossed ETNZ by more than two boatlengths to reclaim the right-hand side.

Butterworth could have placed a tighter cover on the Kiwis but elected for a looser cover further to the right. This is Geordie’s “Corral”, where you’ve got enough confidence in your superior boatspeed that you just herd the opposition in the general direction without actually hurting them. It’s the slow death approach, except on this occasion it was Alinghi that was suffering a slow death.

Asked what went wrong at that point in the race, Alinghi runner grinder Rodney Ardern said: “That’s a good question! The waves were a bit more choppy from the spectator wash and we seemed to lose a bit of speed. We checked the rudder and keel and couldn’t see anything, but we didn’t feel that good up that second beat and they closed in on us and took the lead.”

ETNZ mainsheet trimmer Don Cowie reckoned the Kiwis responded quicker to a slight drop in the breeze. “I think we might have changed gears a little quicker when the light patch came in,” he said. It certainly seems like the New Zealand crew are capable of getting their boat up to full pace more quickly than Alinghi. The trouble is, NZL 92’s full pace is not quite up to SUI 100’s full pace. The Kiwis are talking a brave game of it being a one-design race out there, but that’s not how it looks from the outside.

Dean Barker has fully removed those lingering doubts that existed all those weeks ago about his inconsistent starting. He sailed a blinder of a pre-start against Ed Baird today and crossed the start line bang on the money, while Alinghi took another three seconds to cross. Ed Baird is sporting a back pack that powers up his fighter-pilot heads-up display in his sunglasses. It gives him a visual map of the boat in relation to the start box, but it didn’t seem to do much for his time on distance today.

So for the second time in two races Dean Barker scored a peach of a start with lots of lateral separation from Alinghi, and yet less than five minutes later he was bounced away to the right. Strategist Ray Davies admitted: “We had a bit of a plan that if we could start to the right and continue for two or three minutes we would have been happy with that.

“We were more than happy with where we started. Dean did a great job of starting at pace and with heaps of separation and normally you would be able to last a long time with that sort of range. We were a bit surprised that we got spat off there and with Alinghi making more of a gain it was a little bit of a surprise for us!”

Asked what they could do next time to neutralise Alinghi off the start line, Cowie responded: “We’ve got to work a little bit harder as the trimmers – that’s me and Louie [jib trimmer Grant Loretz] – getting the boat locked in and off the start line. We’ve got to make sure we know what the pressure is off the line.”

I think Cowie is being hard on himself. The Kiwis are sailing their boat beautifully, they’re hardly putting a foot wrong, but SUI 100’s extra little edge is getting Alinghi out of jail. Today’s result will have done wonders for Kiwi confidence, but Alinghi is still looking the more potent package.

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Ugly but Effective

If the America’s Cup was won on artistic merit, then Alinghi would have lost badly today. SUI 100 looked so ungainly bashing through the nasty slop and chop, giving the foredeck crew a good dousing every time they ventured up to the bow.

Normally when a boat looks bad, it sails bad, but the dreadnought-bowed Defender defied convention, hobby-horsing upwind every bit as quickly as the much steadier, smoother running NZL 92.

Downwind the boat looked very pacy, with the Alinghi crew extending their lead on both offwind legs. From the outside the signs look very ominous, SUI 100 appearing to live up to the pre-race hype about being a rocket.

The sailors read it quite differently, though. ETNZ pitman Barry McKay sounded a little relieved after the race to have discovered that SUI 100 was good, but not invincible. “It’s not a rocket,” he said. “There’s been a lot of mystique around it. It’s a good boat, but it’s not out of this world. It’s game on.”

Brad Butterworth offered a similar view from the Alinghi perspective. “I think the boats are much the same speed – we caught some nice waves downwind but they are pretty much the same. I think that getting the left-hand side of the course was key. We got that, managed to get the other boat to tack away, and that was it.”

That was very much the ETNZ analysis of the race too, with McKay putting today’s loss not down to any boatspeed differences but simply down to Alinghi getting bow forward into the first windshift. “We came off the line in good pressure, and as you guys can probably see, we took a bit of gauge and moved forward a bit, but then the breeze went left 10 degrees and went soft. That made it a bit hard for us and we had to roll out [into a tack]. They dug into the left-hander and tacked back, and that was the race right there, I guess.”

So, the boats are even for pace then…

I’m not entirely convinced.

SUI 100 showed a couple of bursts of speed offwind. Alinghi grinder Matt Welling suggested it might have been surfing technique rather than raw pace. When I asked him where he felt more comfortable compared to the Kiwis – upwind or downwind – he said: “You would have to say after today, downwind, but it’s very difficult to judge downwind performance on a day like today. Ed [Baird] caught some real nice waves, and you can pick up a couple of boatlengths really quickly.”

Grant Dalton was one of the few to betray any sense of a speed deficit. “We learned that there was not much in it as far as boat speed is concerned. NZL 92 was able to hold SUI 100 upwind and they seemed to have an edge downwind. However, it’s difficult to be definitive about boat speed after today’s race. The shifts we experienced were way bigger than just boat speed. We have got to concentrate on just getting each shift as best as we can and if we can do that we’ll win.”

So, it looks like the dire predictions of a 5-0 whitewash by Alinghi could be unfounded after today. Both teams are talking about a good even fight. The Defender still has the edge however. SUI 100 is not a steamroller, but it is a very fast hobby-horse. Alinghi confirmed their status as pre-series favourites today.

Luigi's new assistant race officer

Apparently principal race officer Peter ‘Luigi’ Reggio is none too happy about having to hand the starting horn for Race 1 of the 32nd America’s Cup over to supermodel Petra Nemcova.

You have to have some sympathy for Luigi. It’s not exactly clear what the Czech model’s connection with the America’s Cup is, and maybe someone like Dennis Conner or John Bertrand would have been a more fitting figurehead for the role. Or possibly Russell Coutts, with his strong connection to both teams on the starting grid...;)

Then again, I’m sure Luigi will cheer up when he gets to meet Ms Nemcova in the flesh. Dennis-Petra-Dennis-Petra…. Who would you get to fire your starting pistol?

Meanwhile, no 18th men listed on the crew lists for today’s big match. What a big waste of one of the most unique elements of the Cup. How many top-grade sporting events allow a spectator access to the field of play, to be a part of the action? It should be compulsory for teams to take their passenger. It makes no difference to the performance of the boats, so where’s the problem?

A nice quote from Brad Butterworth yesterday, being asked to compare the Cup now with 20 years ago when he was calling tactics for a young Chris Dickson, as part of New Zealand’s ‘Plastic Fantastics’ campaign. “I could move around a bit easier - I was 27 then! The difference between what I know now and I what I knew in Fremantle…we were beaten by Dennis Conner, and I could not understand how he could beat us because he was so relaxed, but he was faster and smarter.”

The battle between the two tacticians in this Match will be fascinating. You couldn’t find two more different characters. Butterworth, the most laid-back man in Port America’s Cup, and Terry Hutchinson the intense and focused American carrying Kiwi hopes of “bringing the Cup back home”. Different personalities, but very similar racing styles however. Don’t expect any of the Torben Grael throw-caution-to-the-wind style of tactics, but a much, much tighter game.

Hutchinson commented yesterday: “I suspect you’ll see us do the same kind of things we’ve been doing up until now - looking for subtle little gains, and capitalising on them. With Alinghi I think you’ll see the same thing - taking small gains during the race.”

Writing at 11am in Valencia, there’s a strong element of northerly in the breeze right now, which is pretty unusual, but it looks like 3pm start time should be a go. D-Day has arrived.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Baird to steer Alinghi, but Kiwis win starboard entry

Alinghi confirmed the worst-kept secret in Valencia with the announcement that Ed Baird is to steer SUI 100, with his boss Ernesto Bertarelli standing just behind him, working the runners.

Talking of runners, Alinghi’s hope of being able to move their top-mast backstays forward next to the mast was knocked back by a new Public Interpretation yesterday. Today Alinghi fired back by asking for a further interpretation over the practice which was commonly seen during the challenger series, that of moving the slack runner from the leeward side of the yacht forward and to windward of the boom to reduce windage.

Chief measurer Ken McAlpine said that this too was prohibited, with the caveat that it is permitted for “the runners, having been eased, to be secured against the boom using a secondary tensioning device, to avoid movement and damage while racing and to protect the crew from injury”.

So the upshot is that Alinghi’s hoped-for advantage in this small area has been negated, although the overall feeling around Valencia is that the Defender will still go on to dominate this series. I’m not so convinced of Alinghi’s invincibility. The Kiwis’ crew work will be better, and their boatspeed is well proven across the wind range. The Swiss have done surprisingly little sailing over the past few weeks, with the boats spending a lot of time in the shed. They’d better be sure of that speed edge that SUI 100 is reputed to have.

With Terry Hutchinson winning the toss (Dean doesn’t like tossing the coin) and opting for starboard entry tomorrow, coupled with a light forecast for the first two matches over the weekend, the Kiwis have an excellent chance to take an early lead in the series.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

SUI 100 is the Weapon of Choice

So Alinghi have selected SUI 100 as their weapon of choice. Speaking to part of the Kiwis' design team Marcelino Botin earlier today, he sees SUI 100 as more 'downrange' compared with SUI 91.

Also, although most pundits reckon the Swiss boats are a bit beamier than NZL 92, but the Spanish designer (with a South African accent picked up from his business sidekick Shaun Carkeek) believes otherwise. "Our boat might be a bit narrower at deck level, but I think the Alinghi boats might be even with ours at waterline, or maybe narrower." In any case, he sees Alinghi as potent package whatever the weather.

Meanwhile, I've done a short interview with Dean Phipps, Alinghi's pitman (pictured above). You can find it at my website. Click this link to take you through to Here's a short excerpt from the interview. How do you rate the competition? What are their strengths?

Dean Phipps: New Zealanders are passionate about sailing, and the guys on Emirates are great sailors. We respect them, we’ve sailed round the world with half of them, we’re looking forward to the challenge. The crew work has been flawless, Dean is starting really well, and he’s got stronger since Adam [Beashel] came on board; it looks like he’s just gelled the whole back of the boat together. They’re going to be a tough nut to crack.

Click here to gain access to the rest of the interview, and more America's Cup interviews in the coming days...

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Alinghi and the Top-Mast Backstay Controversy

Remember that Mascalzone Latino aberration from a few weeks back? When the Italian team discovered that they had been sailing illegally every time they clipped or unclipped their top-mast backstays from the mast during a race? Well, top-mast backstays are right at the centre of controversy once again, and this time it’s Alinghi causing all the trouble.

If you’ve been reading the Public Interpretations from the Measurement Committee over the past few weeks (and I don’t blame you if you haven’t – because this is dry stuff), then you’ll have noticed that someone has been asking some pretty bizarre interpretations of the Cup class rules. That someone – it became clear today – was Alinghi, who it seems still hasn’t quite found the answer to the question that it dare not ask.

It centres around whether or not it is legal to tuck the top-mast backstays along the side of the mast when they are not being used (ie upwind when all they do is create extra drag). Views differ about how much drag they create, but the consensus seems to be that an absence of top-mast backstays could amount to about 20 metres per windward leg (ie not far short of a boatlength). That may not seem significant, until you think back to just how close for speed NZL 92 and ITA 94 were in the LV Cup Finals. And look what a big effect a small speed edge had on the outcome.

So this stuff is worth fighting for. Today Alinghi won a first-round skirmish against the Measurement Committee (click here for an explanation), but it still doesn’t mean the Defender has secured an absolute answer that it is OK to use the top-mast backstays in the unprecedented way that Alinghi would like. As head of the Jury Bryan Willis pointed out today, the rule has been sloppily worded, which makes it very open to interpretation. Which means that as things stand, Alinghi could go out and race with its clever top-mast backstay arrangement, but that the Kiwis could bring a protest to bear. Expect more back-room toing and froing between Defender, Measurer and Jury before Race 1 on Saturday. This is not done yet.

Then again, perhaps it’s all academic, because word out of the Luna Rossa camp is that Alinghi was a fair click faster than the Italians in their informal racing a week and a half ago. If there is any truth to this, then it is worrying stuff for New Zealand because despite that 5-0 scoreline in the LV Finals, ITA 94 was more or less a benchmark for NZL 92’s speed. These tidied-away top-mast backstays would be the icing on the cake, although you get the impression that Alinghi would do just fine with or without them. That outing against Luna Rossa has given Brad Butterworth and his gang an enormous amount of confidence.

On the other hand, the past couple of weeks have seen the Defender blow up around half a dozen spinnakers during training, and the boathandling continues to look shoddy by comparison with the Kiwis. We’ve all heard of sandbagging to disguise your true boatspeed, but sandbagging to disguise your true boathandling abilities? That’s a new one! It’s inconceivable that Alinghi could lose the America’s Cup because the team can’t tack or gybe the boat.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Testing Time for the Kiwis

Wrapping up the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals 5-0 against Luna Rossa has brought some unexpected benefits for the Kiwis. Not only has it given them more rest and recuperation time, but the team is now using the extra days for some intensive two-boat testing between NZL 92 and NZL 84.

Grant Dalton says they’re not looking for any magic gains in this final period, but checking in on a few things that they discovered in the Hauraki Gulf at the beginning of the year and validating them in the conditions off Valencia.
Yesterday the two boats enjoying a stonking day out on the water, the wind blowing a steady 16 knots, although today has been a lot softer.

It looks increasingly like Valencia won’t be providing the rock-solid sea breezes that might be expected at this time of year. This America’s Cup could well call for a good all-round boat, and so the Kiwis will welcome strong days like yesterday to help get the most out of their narrow hull, which seems optimised for sub-12 knot conditions.

There’s no doubt Dean Barker and the crew can sail the pants off NZL 92 when the breeze is up. Look what they did to the Spanish in the final match of the Semi Finals. But the slightly beamier Alinghi boat looks well set up for the breeze, and it will be immaculately sailed. So the Kiwis need to find that extra something. At least now they have this window of opportunity.

Dalton commented: “In some ways we’re just checking in on some of the things we did in Auckland. And because we stayed in Auckland as long as we did, and with the help of private individuals flying the boats up here, it allowed us not to get into the situation that maybe Luna Rossa found themselves in after the Semi Finals where they were still looking at configurations for the first time and evaluating them.

"We’re just re-evaluating things that we think we already know, but in the conditions of Valencia, with a lot more spectator chop at the top mark, and the wind is quite sheary here. It was a good sea breeze today [Monday], but we’ve seen some quite light sea breezes. So we’re just rechecking things here from Auckland.”

Will the Kiwis' last-minute tweaks be enough for the mighty Alinghi? Most pundits around Port America’s Cup are predicting a 5-0 whitewash in the Defender’s favour. Boathandling still isn't going to plan, however. Today in just 7 knots of breeze, one of the Alinghi boats ripped another spinnaker (remember last week's torn kite against Luna Rossa) during two-boat training today. Both boats were using standard rigs with jumper struts, which are quite often the culprits where torn kites are concerned. Maybe it's time to consider the jumperless rig sitting in the Alinghi shed! It would at least cheer up the sail repairers.

Still, a minor setback in the scheme of things. Simon Daubney sounded pretty confident when I spoke to him last week. If you haven’t already downloaded the interview, click here to read what the Alinghi trimmer had to say.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Will boatspeed be enough for Alinghi?

Alinghi’s crew work hasn’t looked all that slick in their informal races against Luna Rossa this past couple of days. By their own admission, the Defenders have not spent as much time as the challengers on race training, preferring instead to focus on testing and development in pursuit of a small speed edge, in the belief that boatspeed will prevail in the America’s Cup.

However, if the Kiwis can keep it tight, then maybe they can negate any Alinghi speed advantage – if indeed there is one. I spoke to Alinghi trimmer Simon Daubney last week. To get the full interview, sign up to my newsletter over at

Below is an excerpt from the interview. Asked how he thought Alinghi was going in comparison to NZL 92, the three-time Cup-winning said this: “Every time this America’s Cup question comes up, I have no idea where we are in relation to the other team. All I do know is we’ve done more testing and they’ve done more racing, not just this year but over the past few years.

“And so if we end up with a speed advantage, that would be attributed to us putting more emphasis on testing than they did. If we end up screwing up our crew work or going around the leeward mark with our spinnaker still up, then maybe we put our emphasis in the wrong place! In the last few weeks we’ve been practising a lot on our crew work and doing our racing, and it’s been tough to watch these guys go out there doing full-on racing, so we’ve been doing our racing.

“Last time Team New Zealand made the mistake of having the boat in the shed doing a lot of development during the last Cup while we were out there sailing a boat that had been in the water for a year. It sounds wishy-washy, but the fact of the matter is that seat-of-the-pants sailing, getting to know the boat, is still a huge part of this.”

Click here to get the rest of the interview…

Friday, 8 June 2007

Luna Rossa races Alinghi

Luna Rossa had their full A-boat crew out for racing against Alinghi today, with James Spithill steering and Torben Grael doing the tactics. On the Alinghi boat it was Ed Baird steering and Brad Butterworth calling tactics, adding further fuel to the rumour that Baird has been given the top job ahead of Peter Holmberg. The truth of that rumour we won’t know until the Defender announces its helmsman the day before the America’s Cup Match.

The pre-starts were quite aggressive, and in one start Spithill managed to get the hook on Baird, forcing Alinghi to tack off on to port near the committee boat and make a downspeed start to the right. On this particular start the boats never re-engaged, separated by several hundred metres as they sailed up opposite sides of the course.

After about 15 minutes of sailing they turned back down again to pick up a tow from their chase boats to the bottom of the course. It looked to me like Alinghi would have been quite far ahead at that point.

That’s when I headed in, so I didn’t see subsequent races between the boats, although word came back that Luna Rossa was well ahead in another match where they used spinnakers. Alinghi ripped one of theirs, putting them further behind. Apparently Alinghi's tacks and gybes were looking a bit ragged, as they did in the informal racing against the Kiwis a couple of weeks ago. Crew work will definitely need to improve before they meet Dean Barker and Co, who look more and more slick with every race.

As usual, very difficult to make any hard conclusions about performance. Luna Rossa was using ITA 94 but not sure which Alinghi boat we were looking at. Judging by the aggression in the pre-starts, the best guess would be that it was the older SUI 91.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

The Battle for Europe

Some sore heads in the Kiwi camp this morning (thanks by the way to local SailJuice fan ‘Anonymous’ for his comment on yesterday’s piece, seems like the Kiwi camp partied long and hard last night!).

Such was the release of pressure yesterday in the Kiwi team as the champagne corks started popping, it was almost as though they’d won the America’s Cup itself. One of the senior management team commented at the team barbecue last night that they’d done the job they came here to do. What? Surely the job is only half done?

Yes, the Kiwis had a right to party after winning the Louis Vuitton, but the real job has yet to begin. Hopefully a gap of two and a half weeks before the America’s Cup is enough to reset Kiwi ambitions for the Cup, and put victory in the Louis Vuitton Cup into perspective.

Meanwhile, the Kiwis must be beginning to wonder if they’ve got any fans in the world outside of the North and South Islands. A couple of days ago Desafio Espanol went out training with Alinghi. Let’s not forget that the Spanish have given the Kiwis their toughest challenge to date, holding them to 5-2 in the Semi Finals, with a boat – ESP 97 - that some pundits believe is the fastest design of any challenger team.

Today the vanquished Luna Rossa team put out this announcement: “Being the only semi-finalist still working here in Valencia to not have raced against Alinghi, after they raced Emirates Team New Zealand two days before the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals and also against the Spanish Team during the Finals, Luna Rossa will race the America's Cup defender Alinghi tomorrow.”

It is not in Patrizio Bertelli’s commercial interest to see the America’s Cup head south, nor is it in Desafio Espanol’s. There is a fear that if Emirates Team New Zealand win the Cup, that they will take the event back to the dark ages, to a corner of the world that offers nothing like the same commercial opportunities that Europe has opened up, and to re-establish strict nationality rules that would benefit the Kiwis more than anyone.

The Kiwis have as yet been tight-lipped on what plans they have for the Cup should they manage to wrest it away from the Swiss, so it might be unfair to suggest this is where they would take the event. But that is certainly the fear, and is the reason why the likes of Spain and Italy are breaking one of the unwritten rules of the America’s Cup in agreeing to tune up against the Defender.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

At last Dean smiles!

Dean Barker punched the air as he crossed the finish line of today’s decisive race, the first skipper to have won the Louis Vuitton Cup with a clean sweep. He even smiled. In fact he smiled a lot, as did the rest of the Kiwis, who did enough smiling and backslapping to make up for the past two months of tight-lipped stoicism that we have seen until today.

Having beaten Luna Rossa by 22 seconds, condemning the Italians to a 5-0 exit from the Louis Vuitton Cup, Barker looked like a man who had banished his demons. He has taken a first important step towards making amends for the humiliation of that 5-0 defeat at the hands of Alinghi four years ago.

“I’m just rapt,” he said. “I can’t say enough about the guys on the boat - the whole team. It’s been a really tough journey. The round robins didn’t start our way, losing that match to Mascalzone. But I’m proud the way the team has bounced back and grown as we have come through.”

In terms of score line, the 5-2 defeat of Desafio Espanol in the Semi Finals has been the Kiwis’ toughest test so far. “The Semi Final was great. On reflection we will look back and say that racing Desafio and dropping two races to them has actually made us a much stronger and better team.

“I don’t think anyone on the team ever dreamed or believed that we would get through the Finals against a team like Luna Rossa in the way we did. It was certainly flattering but we never ever felt it was a comfortable series, it was always very tight.”

Barker paid tribute to Grant Dalton’s unique brand of management. “Anyone that knows Grant knows his work ethic - he pulls everything together, starts first in the morning, last to leave in the evening. He is 120% committed to making the team successful and that rubs off on all the guys. His drive and determination gets you through the sheer hard work.”

This is Barker’s second go as skipper of Team New Zealand, but he says there is no comparison between the team then and the team now. “There are fundamental differences in this team to the team that lost the Cup in 2003 under the leadership of Grant Dalton, Kevin Shoebridge and what those guys have done.

“They were the dark days of 2003 and even 2004, the key decisions which put this team back together, hard work and the money to be able to push the go button for the challenge. In terms of what will happen, we have got a lot better, I’ve got a huge amount of confidence in the team and the guys on the boat, we have managed to step a level for the final. The challenge is now to stay focussed and take another step going into the America’s Cup.”

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Is Torben just too Nice?

Is Torben Grael just too nice for match racing? In the second cross of today’s match the Brazilian Magician on Luna Rossa had his foot on the Kiwi boat’s throat. He should have finished off the job, by tacking hard on the Kiwis’ leeward bow, forcing them off to the left again.

By his own admission in this evening’s press conference, Grael thought the breeze had already gone as left as it was going to, so he wanted to protect the right. Maybe by tacking far to leeward of NZL 92 he wanted to encourage the Kiwis to follow him over to the right and fall into Italian bad air as the breeze shifted right. That is the only possible defence for Grael’s unconvincing tactics.

As it was, the breeze went further left than Grael had expected, allowing Dean Barker not only to live on ITA 94’s hip but to move forwards and climb out from there into a controlling position which he would never relinquish. Not for the first time this series, the Kiwis couldn’t quite believe their luck, as ETNZ windspotter Adam Beashel commented afterwards: “We were surprised they tacked to leeward there, it’s not what I’d have chosen, but that was their thinking…” The result was a 52-second win to the Kiwis, who used marginally better boatspeed to extend once they were in front.

Poor old Torben really didn’t want to be sitting in that press conference this evening. Every time he finished answering a question he put the microphone back down like a hot potato. And at the end of the conference, he couldn’t get out of there quick enough. No wonder, as he was asked more or less the same question four or five times. We were no more enlightened as to why he chose to tack so unaggressively under the Kiwis than before the press conference had begun.

Here’s an example. Asked if it would have been possible to tack closer under the Kiwi bow, he replied: “We definitely could, but we felt we were on a leftie and wanted to defend the right side which we thought was good, and take the position which we thought was safe. They hung out with a nice leftie with pressure and they made a huge gain in a short period. From then on it was quite difficult for us to come back because we weren’t in a strong position to do so.

“It’s hard to predict those things - the right came, but it came late and we couldn’t benefit from it. Knowing what happened now, I would go closer, but it’s a hard situation there, you have to decide right then on the information you have, and with the information I had I felt I was doing the right thing.”

You can be sure that if the tables were turned, Terry Hutchinson wouldn’t have been nearly so gentlemanly. He would have tacked on the opposition’s face and bounced them away. You can’t fault Torben Grael’s record in fleet racing – five Olympic medals says it all – and normally no one can read the wind better than this man. However, in the past week, Grael’s legendary windspotting skills have eluded him on a number of occasions.

Luna Rossa won the roll of the dice off the start line today, picking the right side and moving to a four-boatlength lead at the first cross. Fair enough, it worked on that occasion. But if the Kiwis had found themselves in that position it would have been game, set and match right there. Using good old, hard-arsed match racing skills.

In James Spithill, the Italians have one of the sharpest shooters in town, but Torben’s softly-softly tactics are not giving Spithill the ammunition to hurt the Kiwis. When the Kiwis have the faster boat, there’s even more of an imperative to fix bayonets and get stuck into some hand-to-hand fighting. Time for Torben to turn nasty.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

Lady Luck eludes Luna Rossa

James Spithill delivered pretty much everything that could have been asked of him in the pre-start today. Dean Barker allowed himself to be carried into a long luffing match that took both boats way above the start line.

At one point, things were starting to look a bit desperate for the Kiwis, and eventually Barker bit the bullet as he bore away deep on to starboard gybe. Spithill responded by turning sharply inside the Kiwi boat and still controlled the situation.

As both boats recrossed the start line and gybed on to port, the Italians seemed happy to leave the Kiwis to their own devices, opting to focus on a fast, full-pace start off the middle of the start line as the gun fired.

The flustered Kiwis were probably relieved to have been let off the hook so easily, although they were very downspeed at the committee boat.
The Italian dominance of the pre-start had given them a boatlength’s advantage in the early stages. In some ways it was a close replica of what happened in yesterday’s start but with the tables turned. The difference was that Luna Rossa never got to exert that boatlength’s advantage.

Within two minutes of the start, the Kiwis’ higher track in slightly better breeze from the right had neutralised the early Italian advantage. Another two minutes later, and the Kiwis had fully reversed the situation as they pulled ahead to a boatlength’s lead.

Kiwi strategist Ray Davies later admitted: “As the old saying goes, it is sometimes better to be lucky rather than good. The breeze went our way and in a few moments it was difficult for them to come back at us.”

Torben Grael knew he was in trouble and was reluctant to tack over to engage the enemy, suspecting he already knew the answer. However, as the port layline drew uncomfortably close, he called for a tack and got the answer he had been dreading.

At the first cross, NZL 92 was more than a boatlength ahead. It was game, set and match from there. The Kiwis extended around the track and crossed the finish 450 metres ahead, winning by 1 minute 38 seconds.

So, what lessons for the Italians? They have a right to feel a little sorry for themselves, because the wind dealt them no favours off the start line today. But in the land of no excuses, which is the America’s Cup, questions have to be asked of the weather team and the afterguard.

One member of the Italian afterguard, Ben Durham, commented: “Hindsight is a good thing – we took the line bias and were hoping we were going to be able to take over. I think over the last three days ETNZ has done a better job of getting off the line and getting it up to speed well and getting the first shift. I think they are all areas that we can do a bit better in.”

In both their starboard entry pre-starts, the Italians have happily conceded the power of the right. On both occasions the left has failed to produce the goods. In today’s pre-start Spithill was holding all the aces. He could have taken the right but preferred to start closer to the wind on the pin-biased line.

They were unlucky, and they deserved better. But maybe the Italians need to be looking further up the track before the start. Winning the start is not sufficient. You have to be winning the race two minutes after the start, and that is what the Kiwis are doing so well.

The day’s rest tomorrow does the Italians a massive favour. It slows down the Kiwis’ momentum and gives Luna Rossa a chance to take stock and regroup. That said, it’s very hard to see them coming back from this. It’s not that they’re sailing badly, it’s just that the Kiwis are sailing with ruthless efficiency. And they’re getting faster. If Luna Rossa couldn’t capitalise on their dominance over New Zealand in today’s pre-start, then when can they?

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Right place, Wrong speed

You can’t fault James Spithill and the Luna Rossa crew for their ability to win the favoured side of the start. Spithill pulled off a high-risk manoeuvre on port across the bow of the Y-flag-waving Kiwis in today’s pre-start. The Italians got away with it, and claimed the power of the right.

What they failed to do, however, was hit the start line at full pace. The Italians were downspeed today, as they were yesterday, while Dean Barker and the Kiwis had wound NZL 92 fully up to speed as the gun fired. Luna Rossa put in an early tack to the right, which was where they wanted to be, but they had paid a high price to win that supposed advantage.

Luna Rossa's navigator Michele Ivaldi commented: "The turning point was at the start, we wanted the right a little more strongly than yesterday. Team New Zealand and Deano did a good job in making us pay for the right. We had the side but we paid with some boat speed crossing the starting line."

Within 20 seconds of crossing the line, New Zealand was already a boatlength up and Barker rolled into a tack to shadow the Italians on the right. The ensuing drag race confirmed the findings of yesterday’s race, that there is very little to choose between these boats for speed.

Nor was there much to choose between one side of the course or the other. Torben Grael found nothing on the right to get him back into the race. When the Italian finally tacked to face the music, the Kiwis were ready, and started pouring the pain on to their rivals as they herded the match out towards the starboard layline.

By the top mark the delta in the Kiwis’ favour was 25 seconds. Barker never allowed a glimmer of hope that the Italians might get back into this race. Emirates Team New Zealand finished 40 seconds ahead, and moved to 2-0 ahead in the series. Even after today’s emphatic victory, though, there’s very little to choose between these teams. It looks like it’s all about the start and the first cross.

In the first two races the Italians have won the positioning they wanted, but at the expense of start-line acceleration. If they can address that problem, then they could give the faultless Kiwis a run for their money. NZL Strategist Ray Davies said today: "It was an awesome day, one of the best days we have had on board – it was all working really well. Terry was on fire, he was sailing really confidently." The Italians need to win tomorrow to prevent Kiwi confidence from gaining further momentum.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Luna Rossa wrong to give Kiwis the right

It was surprising how easily Luna Rossa gave up their starboard entry advantage in today’s opening match of the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals. Dean Barker can’t have believed his luck as he went into an early dial-up expecting a full-on punch-up with James Spithill, only to find the Italian boat quite happy to concede the right in favour of the left-hand side of the start.

In the last minute it looked as though Spithill wanted to get eleventh-hour aggressive with Barker, but if that was the case, the Australian left it too late to inflict any damage on the Kiwis up near the committee boat. Come start time, it was NZL 92 that was fully up to speed on the right, ITA 94 still recovering from two downspeed tacks and yet to wind up to full pace.

The Italians accelerated well and looked fast enough, but Torben Grael never found that left-hand breeze which he had been banking on. “It wasn’t a normal situation synoptically but we expected to start on the left, and on a split wanted the right. We were happy with the start, but it went further right than we expected, and so did the pressure. We gained a little back on starboard but close to the top mark there was an extra ‘rightie’ and that was quite painful to us.”

So for once, unlike in the Semi Final matches against BMW Oracle, the Italians’ nose for the best breeze eluded them and it was the Kiwi weather team and afterguard that called it right – wanting the right, winning the right and proving that right was the right place to be. However, despite a 10-degree shift in the Kiwis’ favour during that first beat, the Italians kept a very tight game. The biggest delta of the whole match was 12 seconds at the first mark, and at the finish the Kiwis won by just 8 seconds. Today's race revealed very little difference in performance between two boats that have surprisingly different hull shapes.

Although boatspeed differences were almost imperceptible, it did look like Luna Rossa might have the smallest of edges upwind in the 12 to 13 knot breezes. While the New Zealand team sailed impeccably, there must be a slight fear that the Italian boat has the edge in the classic sea breeze conditions that we saw today.

In some informal but intense racing against Alinghi two days ago, the Kiwis again were holding the right-hand side during a right-shifting breeze but the Swiss team was able to match or gain on the New Zealand boat from the disadvantaged side of the beat. Then again, both teams were using their older boats, SUI 91 and NZL 84 respectively, so it’s difficult to read too much into these test matches. However, there are signs that the Kiwi boats are fast, but perhaps not quite fast enough. Lighter breezes would suit ETNZ better.

What would have come as some relief to the challengers is that while Alinghi’s raw boatspeed looked very good, Defender boathandling looked very shoddy. The Swiss will have to up their game for the America’s Cup, because the boathandling that we saw from the Kiwi and Italian teams today was excellent.