Couldn’t be Pulp Fiction…

You know that scene in Pulp Fiction, where John Travolta plunges the adrenaline needle straight into the chest of the overdosing Uma Thurman? She sits bolt upright, with her eyes boggling? Well… that’s how it was watching Emirates Team New Zealand beat Alinghi by 25 seconds to take a 2-1 series lead yesterday.

For nearly two hours.

It was right up there with the final race in 1983, and if you pitched it in a script, they’d laugh at you, too out there, dude - it just doesn’t happen like that in real life…

Well, it did.

But it so nearly didn’t. The warning signal went at the last possible moment before the 17.00 shut off, after we’d waited all afternoon for the breeze to settle. Ironically, the biggest shift then came through a few minutes into the first beat. It was ETNZ that called it and nailed it. ETNZ wind spotter, Adam Beashel, said afterwards that the weather team had made the call right at the last minute prior to the entry, and we heard strategist Ray Davies restating it late in the pre-start – must-have right.

By then we’d already had Alinghi entering from port and looking like they were going to cross, ETNZ gybing to defend the right, then gybing back when they thought they could get to Alinghi to force a dial-up, and then Alinghi crossing anyway… We should have guessed then, that this might be memorable.

Eventually, Alinghi led back towards the line – once again defending the left. They really do love that starting move. But this time Ed Baird at the wheel of Alinghi did a great job, much more aggressive, getting really tight to leeward of ETNZ, so the Kiwis had to tack for the committee boat short of the layline and downspeed. Immediately Alinghi accelerated and started on starboard, jumping out to a 3-4 length lead.

It lasted maybe three minutes – by the time Alinghi had tacked to port to go with ETNZ, the right-hand windshift was on the Kiwis, and when Dean Barker tacked NZL92 soon afterwards to set up the first cross, the Kiwis were 4-5 lengths clear. From there, it just got worse for Brad Butterworth and Alinghi. The Kiwis defended the right, and that was where all the breeze and shift was coming from – the Kiwis lifted off Alinghi and the lead grew like Topsy. By the time they rounded the windward mark, the gap was 1 minute 23 seconds.

Impossible to come back from? You’d have thought so…

But it was the kind of day when nothing was impossible, and Alinghi were a long way from giving up. They worked the run hard, forcing Terry Hutchinson to make difficult choices between covering and sailing his own race. Perhaps predictably, Hutchinson chose to cover, but it came at a high cost - by the gate the lead was down to 200m, and we were about to see something else new.

The Kiwis screwed up a rounding.

Yup, as I said, you wouldn’t put it in a novel… To be fair, the wind twisted them round it’s little finger like a femme fatale with a leery mark, forcing two late changes of decision about which side, and finally leaving them dead upwind of the mark they had to take in one of the biggest right hand shifts of the day. Things weren’t made any better when Richard Meacham slipped off the bow… but he caught a rope and hauled himself back on board. Then the gennaker got hauled into the headsail winch as they tried to get the sails in around the mark and the knives were out…

If that wasn’t bad enough, Alinghi came round the same mark a minute behind and promptly got a massive 25 degree left-hand shift. It cut the Kiwi’s lead faster than they could cut the spinnaker out of the winch. By the time they tacked to get up to the lane of left-hand breeze that Alingi were in, they were only a couple of lengths ahead. ETNZ tacked to cover, and Alinghi tacked away…

At this point, you’d normally expect Terry Hutchinson, ETNZ’s tactician, to go back with the opponent pretty close. He didn’t, whether that was because they wanted to back the right, or just because they needed to settle the boat down, I’m not sure. Whatever… the result was that at the next cross, Alinghi were right with them. The Swiss dialed-down as ETNZ tried to tack leebow – a role reversal replay of the passing move in race two… And for a long while Alinghi held on in the windward position, but not quite to the layline.

So, the Swiss tack away, ETNZ follow. Wild shifts come through, the gain line is swinging like a seventies keys party, with both boats on starboard, just below the layline. Finally, Alinghi tack back at ETNZ, there’s another massive dial-down, but the Kiwis defend the right, as both boats tack away. There’s one cross left, and it’s going to be right on the wind ward mark…

Alinghi take it.

The Swiss go round 15 seconds in front. It’s the most incredible come back, from what at one point was a 400m deficit. But this race isn’t finished with anyone yet. The Kiwis gybe away, and Butterworth, defending the kind of lead that will disappear in just two extra gybes (and having seen how covering had worked for Hutchinson on the first run), elects not to cover. At the next cross, he’s proved right. No change. Alinghi, on starboard, pass in front of the port gybe ETNZ.

At this point, Alinghi weren’t that far from laying the finish, and they were already on a header. They couldn’t find a good moment to gybe. So they let the Kiwis go behind them and get to leeward. From here, a further left hand shift – the kind that’s already brought Alinghi back into the race on the previous beat - will advantage the Kiwis. And late in the day, when the sea breeze dies, the wind can keep going to the left, Ray Davies reminds the New Zealand afterguard…

Afterwards, Alinghi runner-man, Rodney Arden said that he thought they did the right thing. There just wasn’t a good moment to gybe back towards the Kiwis to cover them. But… but… Alinghi let over a kilometer of separation or leverage open, and at that distance you don’t need much of a wind shift for the lead to change hands.

The boats ended up on opposite laylines, and by the time they came back together, the lead, as represented by the gainline had, according to Ray Davies, changed about a dozen times. But at the final cross, it was the Kiwis that were three lengths clear.

Nail-biting, mind-boggling drama – whatever happens from here, this one will not be forgotten for a long while.

What does it all mean? In the bigger picture, the way this race played out doesn’t tell us anything much about what might happen next. Both boats didn’t so much as make mistakes, as get stitched up trying to do the right thing in impossible conditions. It just happened to be Alinghi holding the parcel when the music stopped. And Dean Phipps, Alinghi pitman, made it pretty clear at the press conference that he thought they shouldn’t have been racing in that stuff – they could have tossed a coin.

I think you can be pretty confident that Brad Butterworth will have been bending race officer Peter Reggio’s ear to that effect this evening.

But… again, the buts… This is new territory for the Swiss team. They’ve never been behind in the Cup before. Until yesterday, they’d never lost a race in six outings. Now they’re 2-1 down in what’s proving to be the most dramatic series we’ve seen since 1983. Or did I already say that…?

Will it unsettle the Swiss? Or will it just fire them up with a sense of bitter injustice? I don’t know, I don’t think anyone knows how this might play out from here. It’s a new movie.

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Mark Chisnell ©