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.

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