Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Viva Las Vegas!

Call it a lottery, call it tiddlywinks, call it Las Vegas, Race 3 of the 32nd America’s Cup was one of the all time greats. With the wind blowing 7 to 9 knots in an enormous swell, and the breeze shifting through 20 degrees or more, this was a hair-raising rollercoaster ride in slow motion.

We witnessed another great pre-start, with Ed Baird getting the better of Dean Barker on this occasion – or did he? On the face of it, bouncing the Kiwis into a tack with just 10 seconds to the start, while SUI 100 launched off the line at speed – 8 seconds ahead – looked like an early victory to the Swiss.

But a few minutes later it became apparent that Barker had been prepared to bet his shirt on winning the right. When NZL 92 hooked into a 20-degree right-hand shift with a knot more pressure, the Kiwis were launched. Barker’s start didn’t look so silly after all.

However, it was a big right-hand shift that also proved the Kiwis’ undoing as they approached the leeward gate still well in the lead. What was meant to be a ‘one-and-in’ to the right-hand mark suddenly became a downspeed drift. When Richard Meacham briefly fell overboard, it only exacerbated the problem, and in the moments of crisis the spinnaker got caught up in the jib sheeting system.

Alinghi rounded behind the same mark and sailed up the inside of the wounded Kiwi boat. I won’t go into the nitty gritty of the next leg, but we saw some spectacular match racing moves, particularly from Alinghi who converted a 1:02 deficit at the bottom to a 15 second lead at the top.

On the run to the finish SUI 100 was looking faster downhill, but Brad Butterworth seemed happy to let the Kiwis to break to the right while Murray Jones up the rig put his faith in the left. With more than a kilometre of lateral separation, this was high-stakes dice-rolling. However it was Adam Beashel’s faith in the right that paid off as the Kiwis crossed the finish line 25 seconds ahead of Alinghi. What a race!

And what reactions afterwards.

I’ll start with the less surprising one first, from Adam Beashel who gave the Kiwi reaction to racing in conditions that were perhaps not ideal but which contributed to one of the greatest races in 156 years of the Cup. “Thanks to the race committee for getting the race underway - as we would have hoped for them to get a race underway today. There was enough breeze to go most of the time, and it was shifting around a lot.”

Compare and contrast with the Alinghi response.

First from pitman Dean Phipps: “We have worked for four years towards having an even boat race, and you could have played tiddlywinks today and had the same result. Just tossed the coin. Should have stayed ashore, I guess.”

Next from trimmer Simon Daubney: “This one was a little bit of a raffle, a little bit of a lottery. We were pretty surprised the race went ahead as it was anyway 15 minutes before they had abandoned the start for a 30 degree difference of the breeze at the top mark, and even on different ends of the start line had up to 20 degrees difference.

“So we were thinking that was a smart move to postpone it - and all of a sudden there seems to be a big rush to get a race off a minute before the time they are allowed to. And there is this big rush to go out there and sail around in those shitty conditions, which is pretty disappointing really after you work so hard for those little gains and to try and improve your performance.

“On a day testing at any time like that you think ‘hopefully we won’t be sailing in these conditions,’ so certainly you wouldn’t spend too much time working away at them.’”

And now this from Mr Alinghi himself, Ernesto Bertarelli. “It was a very strange day, we waited two hours to start that race and honestly the Race Committee starts the race a second before the time limit on a situation which was no better than it had been for the last two hours - high volatility, unpredictable wind which is why we waited….we took a good start because we forced TNZ to tack away, we were leading at the start but then there was the 20 degree shift. I mean, you can’t beat a 20 degree shift from nowhere. We were at one point 400 metres behind and I think we raced the boat really well.

“The boat is very fast and even in light conditions like that we came back, we had a nice race, were in front and then on the last leg it’s impossible to control, when you gybe too often you pay a lot for the gybe but anyway the guy that is behind is going to gybe away. I think we raced well but we were just unlucky.”

Alinghi refused to believe that ETNZ had been anything other than lucky being bounced to the right into that 20 degree gift from the heavens. Daubney commented: “I’m not too sure about their weather call. If they had a clear call that the wind was going to go 20 degrees right on the first beat then that it is certainly something that our weather team hadn’t picked up. So maybe it wasn’t a lottery and maybe their weather team did better than ours but we certainly weren’t expecting that much of a shift and that much of a velocity change.”

Now, bear in mind that when Adam Beashel gave this answer he hadn’t heard any of the Alinghi reactions over at their press conference at the Defender base. So I think this is a pretty honest reaction from Beashel. Sounds to me like the Kiwis knew the ‘lucky dice’ had been loaded in favour of the right. “For us it was switching back and forth quite a lot – early on there was a lot of call to the left but as things got closer, it all started to even up.

“Clouds [ETNZ weather expert Roger Badham] and ourselves on the boat just before entry thought there was a pretty big right-hand shift to come and it was called so it nearly became a ‘must win right’ for us, and Deano did a good job of winning that right-hand side. It was a little downspeed, it would have been nice to be a little quicker but we were hopeful that the right was going to come. And it came as we expected so it all turned well for us.”

So, maybe there was a little skill involved today after all. After today’s reactions from the Defender, Alinghi are sounding a teensy bit Whingi. Mr Bertarelli described today’s race as “a little bit of Las Vegas, which is why I don’t think the race should have happened”. After today’s thriller, the rest of Valencia is singing: “Viva Las Vegas!”


Marc said...

That's some sour grape juice right there from Alinghi.

With all this talk of a lucky shift right on the first beat, it seems they've missed the point. Alinghi came back from that defecit, and still lost the boat race allowing too much seperation on the last downwind leg.

Sure, ETNZ might have been lucky or they might have had a better weather call. But what isn't uncertain is that they did a better job in the flukey conditions and came back from a pretty atrocious rounding to win.

Two thumbs up, this Cup is a cracker.

Anonymous said...

I understand that Bertarelli, using the power given to the Defender, has done a lot to expand the appeal of the America's Cup beyond the little world of yacht enthusiasts. One problem, though, is that match racing can be very boring to those who do not know and appreciate its nuances and techniques. All one sees is a yacht gaining the lead at the start and holding it throughout the race. Now along comes a race that was dramatic and exciting, thanks, in part, to the vagaries of wind-shifts -- a race that interests a wider public (and, hence, those commercial sponsors who are so important to Bertarelli). It is understandable that Bertarelli was disappointed to lose the race, but his whining about holding the race under those conditions was ridiculous. If he wants people to pay attention and corporate sponsors to pay money, he should pray for more races like No. 3. And maybe his team should devote more effort to training for those conditions...

jitter said...

Sailing as every other sport is about the human factor. The ACC box rules takes the boat capability out, leaving human muscle and human brain to compete. So, was ETNZ win better brains or muscle? I think it was the unpredictable factor, pure luck, who pointed at the winner.