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.