The Day of the Tight Deltas

Or one tight delta at least..

ETNZ let Desafio shave 3 seconds off yesterday’s winning margin, the Kiwis crossing the finish line 40 seconds in front of the Spanish to go 2-0 up in their Louis Vuitton Semi-final. But all the action was with Oracle and Luna Rossa - Oracle pegged it back to 1-1 with a finish margin of just 13s – which tells you about as much of the story as the opening credits of a James Bond movie. And that’s what it was - all gun-slinging melodrama compared to the subtle tragedy played out between ETNZ and Desafio.

Where to start? Well, at the start… when Luna Rossa’s Jimmy Spithill bore away out of their port entry dial-up, fell onto starboard, and then gybed round to port to chase Oracle. It was a brilliantly executed move (I wonder how long Jimmy’s had that one in the locker waiting for the right moment?). It allowed Luna Rossa to get to leeward and overlapped sufficiently to pressure Chris Dickson into keeping high as they both sailed out to the right. They ended up over the starboard tack layline for the committee boat. From there, Dickson never got back into it, Spithill always had his hand on the door back to the start line. Oracle made a move to try and sail over Luna Rossa, didn’t make it, and when they subsequently started to try and push Luna Rossa back to the line both boats were late. The trouble for Oracle was that they were later, with Luna Rossa half a length directly in front of them and slamming the door shut in Oracle’s face….

What we saw next was Luna Rossa make some phenomenal gains upwind, to lead at the top mark by 58s, only for Oracle to reverse them downwind, and cut the margin to just 20s at the leeward gate. Oracle then turned a 14s deficit at the second windward mark, into a 13s win by (to all intents and purposes) just sailing past the Italian boat. So have Luna Rossa traded too much upwind speed for too little down, and Oracle done the opposite? In a post race interview, Luna Rossa’s navigator, Michele Ivaldi, reckoned that the gains came too quickly for it to just be about speed, and looking back through the race, I’m inclined to agree with him. Oracle went up the second beat quicker, and their gains downwind came in big jumps when they obviously had better breeze.

The Valencia sea breeze can be incredibly streaky (I remember that from trying to two-boat test there), and we saw that today, with boats just a 100m apart (never mind the 1500m split achieved at one point) in different breezes. But we’ll see if Michele really meant it tomorrow morning, when Luna Rossa will have to file a new certificate if they’ve made any changes to the boat. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between, Luna Rossa may have a tiny edge upwind, and Oracle may have a tiny edge downwind – and in this game a tiny edge can be used to apply pressure and make disproportionate gains, a bit like holding the T in squash, or getting to the net in tennis…

If there was a crux where Luna Rossa lost the match, it came when they let Oracle seperate out to the left halfway down the last run. Oracle were tight behind as the pair exited the top mark, but despite the pressure Luna Rossa matched Oracle's first gybe, and kept their air clear. Great defence. The next time Oracle tried it, Luna Rossa let them go, but not for long, and when they came back, the Italians had got a little gain. Perhaps emboldened by this breeze call and feeling the pressure because Oracle had been coming at them, at the next split Luna Rossa let Oracle get even further away. Not good defence. Oracle found a line of stronger breeze that the American's rode all the way past the Italians to the finish.

So, did the psychological pressure shift back to Luna Rossa in the final metres of today’s race? Not yet, but Luna Rossa have lost the chance to get a grip on the jugular. For Oracle to have gone 2-0 down - on the back of that loss to ETNZ in the last race of the round robin - would have been unsettling for the American team, to say the least. Now it’s even, and we start again from scratch.

There’s also been a lot of talk about the different tactical sailing styles, Torben (Grael/Luna Rossa) the magician sniffing the shifts and playing it loose, versus Terry (Hutchinson/ETNZ) trading distance for position and keeping it tight. I think there’s something in this, but it’s not the whole story. Right through the round robins we saw all the top teams play it really tight with the smaller teams – quite happy to trade tacks like punch drunk boxers until the only thing the headsail was good for was sailing bags (or shore-base construction in Luna Rossa’s case).

When the big teams know they are quicker and have better boat handling, they are happy to let those skills do the work, it’s more than enough advantage. But when they come up against each other, and there’s no more than the metaphorical fag paper between them, they have to dig deeper to find an edge. Where do they look for it? In their ability to read the breeze. The difference between the Luna Rossa v Oracle and ETNZ v Desafio racing is not so much one of style – we’ve seen Luna Rossa keep it tight with plenty of people – as a response to the opponent.

The other point worthy of note was Dickson’s aggression in going for the luff after Luna Rossa’s slam dunk tack at the top mark on the second beat. He’s caught Spithill like this before, and he obviously thought it was a worth another go. But it’s an all-or-nothing move – if you don’t get the penalty, and Dickson didn’t, you’re going to have to accelerate in all the bad air and waves of the other boat. Luna Rossa jumped back out to a two-length lead that they should have been able to hold on to…

Meanwhile, it was business as usual for Emirates Team New Zealand. Dean Barker and co. did a number on Desafio in the pre-start. This was all about the time back to the line, and Kevin Hall aboard ETNZ just had a much better idea than Matt Wachowicz, the navigator aboard Desafio. ETNZ chose to lead Desafio in the approach to the line, and never really needed to even look back. The Spanish were late and then got themselves under the layline for the committee boat. From there, they never looked like recovering. Terry Hutchinson, the ETNZ tactician, was happy to spend some of the 1m 15s delta they had at the top mark positioning his boat to keep the Spanish tucked away. The weekend is when Desafio’s supporters come out in force and they produce their best performances, but right now, it must seem a long way away…

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Mark Chisnell ©