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.

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