Painfully Plain Sailing?

Luna Rossa and ETNZ go 3-1 up in the Louis Vuitton Semi-finals…

For the fourth time in the four races sailed in this semi-final, Luna Rossa led BMW Oracle around every mark. And this time there were no errors on the final run to let the Americans back into it. The split at the finish was just 23 seconds – despite the fact that at one point the boats had been almost three kilometers apart – but that matters little. What matters is that Oracle now have to win four races out of five. It’s starting to look like painfully plain sailing for the Italians – and the Kiwis. Dean Barker recovered his pre-start form to lead Emirates TNZ to their third, forty-something second win – 42 in this case, which is, of course, the answer to life, the universe and everything.

If there’s one team out there that should have the answers to the big questions and don’t, it’s Oracle. The story was familiar - another wrong first-shift call. Peter Isler said as much in the post-race interview - they wanted the right-hand side on the start line. That’s how it looked, and Jimmy Spithill and Luna Rossa seemed happy to let them have it. There wasn’t much aggression in this start, a sign that both teams are happy with what they’ve got. Luna Rossa didn’t even seem that bothered about getting tight to leeward of Oracle to force the early tack. And that’s a sign of a team confident in their boat and their weather call.

And that’s how it played out. Oracle held their windward position for a while, then either a little left-hand shift came in, or Luna Rossa found the extra gear. Either way, the Italians popped forward a couple of critical metres, and Oracle had to tack away before they started hemorrhaging on the gain line. When Luna Rossa had tacked with them and got going, the Italian’s lead was close to a boat length.

Oracle realized they were on the back foot, headed for punishment on the layline, and started the tacking duel. But Luna Rossa had a comfortable leebow at the first cross and then just eased further ahead. Oracle did find a right-hand shift to bring them back into it as they tacked to starboard for the top mark. It seemed that Luna Rossa realized they were making losses as they came into the cross on port, or that Oracle were already over the layline. Luna Rossa tacked short, still ahead and to leeward, and then found the extra gear again and slowly worked up to hurt Oracle. It put the American’s another crucial boat-length back, and gave Luna Rossa room to breathe on the run.

Twice when it counted on that first beat, Luna Rossa found a little bit extra to turn a slight edge into a boat-length or two and take control. And then there was that broken Oracle flipper – the arm on the top spreader that pushes the top leech of the genoa open. It might have been a mechanical failure, or the sail might have hooked it up in a tack and ripped it off – there were plenty of tacks. It won’t have made much difference to the upwind speed, and the crew pulled the bits off the rig before they could do any more damage - but it just felt like another part of the fabric fraying…

We’d seen this first beat movie three times already in this semi-final. What we hadn’t seen before was Oracle making no gains on the run. There was a little more breeze today, and perhaps this was the difference – or maybe there never was much difference, and today Luna Rossa just got the best of the shifts. What mattered was that Luna Rossa had the same lead into the gate, and got to pick their side for the next beat.

And boy, did they pick a side. So far, it had been by the match race text book – but then we got the other story of this semi, one of those priceless Torben Grael moves that puts bums on seats, on the edges of seats… On the second beat, Luna Rossa and Oracle were at one point nearly 3 km apart. This is a dice roll – as it happened, Torben picked the right side - literally and metaphorically - but this is the wind we’re talking about… Still, Luna Rossa went round 29s in front and it was over. And Oracle are down three races to one.

Where do they go from here? Is it time for changes? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it – from the outside you can make a calm assessment, but with none of the inside knowledge. But on the inside, the pressure cooker is turned to the max… OneWorld Challenge went 3-0 down against Oracle in the semi-final repechage in Auckland, and I remember thinking - if we’re going to make any changes, now is the moment. At 4-1 or 4-0, it’s all over bar the shouting, even if the change makes a difference, a single mistake will put you out of it anyway. Not to mention that it smacks of desperation, and signals as much to the opposition.

OneWorld didn't make any changes, and perhaps there are no changes to be made for Oracle. Looking in from the outside, Oracle are losing this because Luna Rossa have a slight edge upwind, and Oracle keep getting the wrong side of the start line – the combination puts them in a tough hole. Who can turn that around for them now? Maybe Larry knows...

I’m embarrassed to have to admit I don’t know who’s making the weather calls for Oracle - Chris Bedford is the met man, but I'm not sure he does the first shift call. Certainly the roles are split at Luna Rossa - the met man is Doug Charko, whose dulcet tones can be heard most mornings on the Luna Rossa website doing the weather forecast. While Kiwi Hamish Wilcox is making the first shift calls - he did the same for Prada in 2000, and then OneWorld in 2003, before returning to the Italian fold. He and his weather team are playing a blinder right now.

Meanwhile, normal service was very much resumed for ETNZ – Barker came in at the pin end entry looking for retribution. He pulled off the balls-iest move in the book – backing out of the left-hand side of the dial-up and swinging his bow behind Desafio’s stern to get behind them and take control of the right hand side of the pre-start box. But ETNZ didn’t want the right any more than Luna Rossa did. So after getting the hook on the return to the line, they forced a down-speed Desafio to tack for the boat, while ETNZ put the bow down and started on starboard (at full speed and some) near the pin, before rolling onto port to cover Desafio. And that was pretty much that, the left paid for ETNZ just as it had for Luna Rossa. The Spanish never got a look in, and we have two teams who can see the brink, even if they aren’t looking over it yet…

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Mark Chisnell ©