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.