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.

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