Dream the Undreamable, Think the Unthinkable…

The Kiwis have been dreaming the undreamable dream (at least according to the word on pundit street) for a while now, and today the unthinkable happened. Twice. Emirates Team New Zealand held Alinghi all the way to the starboard tack layline to take the lead at the top mark. And then threw it away as they let a broken spinnaker turn into a big casino, going through two replacements before they got one up and set.

And after all that, the delta for Alinghi’s race four win was still only 19 seconds.

So, it’s 3-2 - but let’s rewind a bit, because there was a lot of good stuff the Kiwis can take away from today’s race, and it began with Dean Barker’s pre-start. ETNZ strategist, Ray Davies said at the press conference that they reckoned it was a pretty even race track, and they wanted to take it to Alinghi in the pre-start to try and get a little advantage off the line, and they certainly did that.

The Kiwis had the advantage of the starboard entry, but I think it was Ed Baird that gave them the opportunity to use it when he got ahead of Dean Barker in the turn into the dial-up. Alinghi had gone through head to wind and onto starboard tack before Barker was barely above a beam reach. There was an inviting berth to leeward of the Swiss yacht and Barker jumped into it.

And once they were to leeward, the Kiwis had control. Alinghi were quite slow to respond, but eventually they got going on port, and headed for the spectator fleet. A couple of hundred people got their biggest buzz of the day as both boats ducked and dived. Ray Davies reckoned, ‘Opportunities can change quite quickly once you get in among the spectator boats so once we got in with the cats, Deano decided not to engage much more and from that point led back on a comfortable lead, did a secure job of making it tough for Alinghi.’

Alinghi chased ETNZ towards the line, but without enough ‘time to burn’ left for the push to be effective. And as they hardened up for the final approach, the Kiwis were tight to leeward and half a length advanced. At this point, Alinghi’s only option was to tack, and there was a moment when it appeared that a sharp luff from Barker might have forced Baird to tack to port before he could lay the committee boat. That would have left the Swiss tacking twice and still having to accelerate, and might have been a complete shut-out.

But it didn’t happen, the Swiss held on, tacked and started on port at the committee boat, the Kiwis at full speed on starboard with a length advantage. Terry Hutchinson on tactics in NZL92 spent some of their lead in the covering tack, but as both boats settled on port, ETNZ was still half a length clear.

The gain line swung back and forth, and at its best Alinghi worked their way into a half length advantage. But Alinghi navigator, Juan Vila told the press conference there was never quite enough for them to be able to live with a Kiwi leebow tack, and so they hung on…. And, perhaps, like most of those watching, they expected it to get better as the Swiss boat did its thing. In the final stages, we saw Alinghi hit the hyperspace button for the high mode, and they closed the lateral separation down a lot. But it wasn’t enough, and a little left-hand shift let the Kiwis live to the layline – as Ray Davies said afterwards, they were very encouraged by their speed.

There wasn’t any doubt about who was going around the top mark first at that point, but Alinghi did a great job of keeping the gap to just 12 seconds. Both boats set chutes, and as Alinghi came surging down inside ETNZ, closing the lead to just a couple of lengths, it looked like we were all set for another classic.

Then came the unthinkable. ETNZ head honcho, Grant Dalton told the press conference that there was a tear the size of a twenty cent piece (probably doesn’t matter which currency) just above the tack patch, the high load area of the sail. It almost certainly got there in the hoist, perhaps a snag, or just abrading on the non-slip on the deck. They were on to it quickly and Jeremy Lomas was out on the pole end getting ready for the peel when the spinnaker blew. Dalton reckoned they bounced on a wave at just the wrong moment, another ten seconds and it would never have happened. By such slender threads…. literally, in this case.

Then came the error. With Alinghi all over them, the Kiwi crew rushed to get the new sail up and set, before they’d cleared the damaged one. The two got wrapped, and as Dalton said, ‘Chaos ensued, there were people and sails everywhere…’ Eventually the torn sail was dropped, the original replacement was jettisoned for the chase boat to pick up, and finally the second replacement filled, after being hoisted with a twist in it.

It was an agonizing couple of minutes. And Alinghi, who had gybed away into clear air to make the pass, gybed back eight lengths in front, with both boats on the layline for the gate. It’ll be a long night in the sail loft for Dick Parker and his team at ETNZ. The Kiwis weren’t done though, and the rest of the race showed just how tough these guys are.

The delta at the gate was 26 seconds, and with Alinghi taking the right-hand mark (looking upwind), the Kiwis took the left, and got a split going. Alinghi held the right ruthlessly, refusing to be drawn into a high tempo tacking duel. Taking the shifts back to them, ETNZ closed the gap to just a couple of lengths at one point. But the best pressure and shift was on the right-hand side at the top of the course, and Alinghi were onto it. They extended on the final approach, with the Kiwis forced to overstand a little to keep their air clear. And the gap was back up to 24 seconds.

The Kiwis hoisted a spinnaker (or S-sail) rather than an asymmetric (A-sail) for the final run, the Swiss with the asymmetric. Both Alinghi trimmer, Simon Daubney and Ray Davies (who implied that the Kiwis still had a choice) reckoned it was right on the cross over between the A and S sail. Daubney explained that you could work the waves a little better with the S-sail, and Davies told the press that it was probably the better sail at the top of the run, with the A-sail having the advantage as the breeze dropped a touch towards the bottom.

Understandably, Alinghi tactician, Brad Butterworth refused to be drawn into the close gybing duel – the A-sail is the harder to maneuver. And at one point the Kiwis again closed it up to within a couple of lengths. But it wasn’t to be, and as the breeze faded and the A-sail came good, the Swiss pushed ahead to win by 19 seconds.

So, what now? Is this going to finish the Kiwis off? I very much doubt it. If there’s a team in this competition that’s worked at not letting stuff like this unsettle them, it’s Team New Zealand. As Grant Dalton said, ‘How you react to something like that is the key to how you go forward as a team. It is like a fork in the road or a defining moment. You can make it the defining moment but it’s important that we don’t do that, but just see it as a loss in the best of five, and move forward.’

He then got the biggest laugh when he was asked how they got their focus back so fast. He started the answer, went off on a tangent, then had to ask what the question had been… to be told - how do you get the focus back…

What the Kiwis can take away from this was their pace upwind. Dalton was asked if they were worried about their speed in a breeze going into this race, and he replied that even if they were, they couldn’t afford to think about it. And now they certainly aren’t. But there was a question mark raised over Alinghi’s sail choice, the main looked a little edgy on the first beat. When it was queried, Simon Daubney was non-committal - he wanted to see the footage of both boats before he made a call.

The Swiss made all the right noises about still expecting a tight race over twelve knots, Daubney saying that rule changes had been made with the intention of tightening up the differences between the boats, and that after so many iterations of the design cycle, the differences were always going to be tiny.

Another thing everyone agreed on was that it will come down to the sailing from here on. As Daubney said, ‘Grant (Dalton) has said their team is making mistakes, but it’s not all going smoothly on our boat as well. The pressure is on here. It is a very close contest between very close teams and two very equal boats and one little mistake or slip-up is incredibly costly and you don’t want to be the guy that makes that mistake.’

In this game, you have to convert when you’re in possession. The Kiwis failed to do that today and it could cost them dear. But no one, not Tiger, not Michael Jordan, not anyone, repeats even the most routine of actions without occasional failure. That’s what makes sport so compelling. We can only wait to see where the next error will come from, and whether or not it’s critical.

With all that drama going on the water, the previous shore-bound shenanigans got a little forgotten. Perhaps that’s why the jury left it till late to publish their opinion on the ETNZ protest – a bit like the way Governments wait till something dramatic dominates the headlines, and then issue some bad news as quietly as possible….

If you’re into that sort of thing, you can find the opinion here. I’d like to do something on it, but you know… I’m toast… So I gues the Jury's strategy worked then.

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Mark Chisnell ©