Hat's Off...

It was a hell of a day in the America’s Cup, however you score it…

Before we go any further, a little history was made today - Brad Butterworth, Simon Daubney, Warwick Fleury, Murray Jones and Dean Phipps finished their consecutive, sixteen race, America’s Cup winning streak. That’s a record no one is going to break anytime soon, and we should take a moment to pause to consider the achievement of five men who, along with Russell Coutts, have dominated the America’s Cup in the modern era…

photo: Ingrid Abery

… all right, more importantly for this match, the Kiwis ended their six race losing streak, and ensured that the Cup will not go to a sweep for the fourth time on the trot. The importance of their 28 second win, drawing the match level at 1-1, can’t be over-stressed. As ETNZ strategist, Ray Davies said at the press conference - the only thing you can do about a loss is go back out there and try to turn it round. And you can’t do that on a lay-day. Now, both teams have a day to study what they know so far, with the scorecard back where it was.

What do we think they know? In the lighter air and flatter water (compared to yesterday) the boats looked very even. Certainly downwind, there was nothing in it. Upwind, if I had to make a choice, I would still rather be in Alinghi - but in the lighter wind range (and the jury's still out on yesterday) the Kiwis are in the game. And once they’re in the game, all that hard-edged Louis Vuitton racing means Alinghi can’t take anything for granted.

The Swiss aren’t sailing flawlessly, and as Luna Rossa found, that’s all that ETNZ need to get a result on the board. So do we have a slightly quicker boat that’s not sailed quite as well as the slightly slower boat? Well… maybe… at the moment… That happened in a rather memorable series in 1983, so I’m happy to admit that I might be wishing it into being so…

But what could have been caution from Alinghi yesterday, did start to look like a lack of match fitness today. Until the second beat, their speed appeared to get the Swiss boat out of trouble, but today there was one slightly dodgy move too many, and with the Kiwis able to keep the pressure on right from the moment they switched sides in the pre-start, they eventually got the lead.

It was a day when Dean Barker at the wheel of ETNZ had everything to do – and the disadvantage of the port tack entry. But they’ve obviously been working on the timing, because they pulled the ‘Oracle’ move – sailed deep away from the pin with a bit of bias and plenty of speed and crossed Alinghi’s bow. At the press conference, Alinghi tactician, Brad Butterworth commented that ETNZ only just made the cross, he didn’t think it was an Alinghi error, just the way it was… But looking at it again on Live Sailing, ETNZ have their bow down and going deep a full length before Alinghi.

Either way, once he had the right, Barker was able to take a more aggressive stance. After a couple of circles, we had a repeat of yesterday’s start when Barker was first to turn back to the line, and Alinghi decided to turn inside them again and take the left. The difference for this race was that Barker then got himself in a position to get the hook on Ed Baird, at the wheel of Alinghi. And Barker started to push hard, really hard. He forced Alinghi to tack away towards the committee boat. Jimmy Spithill, in the Sky studio, commented afterwards that he thought there was an opportunity for Barker to make a really quick tack to get onto Alinghi’s tail and go for the complete shut-out…

But he didn’t, and Alinghi immediately tacked back to get the left-hand side, and ETNZ didn’t contest it, preferring the right. As in the first race, the crews wanted different things, confirming as much at the press conference. But Alinghi’s quick tack got them too close, with too little time left, and they started well down the line. ETNZ were right on the committee boat at the gun, maybe half a length further forward and with plenty of separation to live.

What happened next was exactly what happened to Luna Rossa after their comprehensive pre-start roughing up of the Kiwis in race three of the LV Final. The ETNZ lead off the line evaporated with bewildering speed, Alinghi just smoked up underneath them, and the Kiwis were forced to tack off. It was a bad moment for Barker and company, and Ray Davies admitted as much at the press conference. Pressure (breeze) or performance? Probably a bit of both…

But so far, so much a replay of yesterday. And the script didn’t change for a long while. Alinghi sailed a great beat, forced ETNZ to pay their dues for being behind – two extra tacks – and went round the top mark 19 seconds in front. It was now that things changed, and all of a sudden instead of a dull remake of the original, we had a brand new movie (less Tomb Raider 2: The Cradle of Life, and more Mad Max II).

Alinghi gybed to starboard, and headed away from the right hand side of the course (looking upwind). Brad Butterworth admitted at the press conference that he was not happy about the spectator wash in that top corner, and he used the tv microphone to make his comments felt to the wider world. So they took a shift away from the wash, and made a slight gain. But Alinghi had handed the Kiwis a split, and made them the pro-active boat, choosing when to go back at the Swiss. ETNZ tactician, Terry Hutchinson, made it work and at the next cross the Kiwis were a touch closer.

Now ETNZ got their first real break – Alinghi found themselves on a header, with the layline coming up like Niagra falls for a man in a barrel. So when Alinghi did finally have to gybe, it was an open invitation for the Kiwis to come across and smack one on the air of the Swiss boat. And you can’t give people like Terry Hutchinson that kind of opportunity. Alinghi wriggled into clear air, but it cost them another half length.

They then compounded the loss by electing to go across and round the left-hand mark (as they did yesterday). It saved a gybe and a tougher rounding, but it was slightly further away. The net result was that the Kiwis closed the game up to 13 seconds, and got another split going away from the mark. By the time Alinghi had tacked to cover the gain line was showing the lead down to just a couple of lengths - a gap that ETNZ maintained to the first cross, by taking a little right-hand shift across to Alinghi.

The Swiss carried on to take the right, and pretty much everyone watching (that I heard voice an opinion), thought they did the right thing – getting late in the afternoon in Valencia, the right usually pays. But it was an unstable kind of day, and it didn’t alter the fact that for the second day in a row, Alinghi had taken a loss to go to the left hand mark, then immediately changed their minds and swopped back to take the right. But the real difference was that today, once they’d got the right, the Kiwis found the leftie from hell to come back on. Ray Davies said that it was the biggest shift they saw, and they got it just when they needed it.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen that either, remember the Kiwis passing Luna Rossa in race four of the Louis Vuitton Final? And Brad Butterworth made the same error as Torben Grael did on that occasion – he tacked leebow, but not close enough to ETNZ to make it stick - and the Swiss had to watch as the Kiwis wound up inside them on the lift.

Now all the Kiwis had to do was to hold their lane to the layline… It was still a big ask, and despite Alinghi finding the high gear and closing the lateral separation, the Kiwis just made it. And once NZL 92 was on starboard, bow forward and on the layline, it was all over. Alinghi eventually dropped in behind them, and rounded the top mark 15 seconds behind. It was a lead the Kiwis defended to the finish, and converted into a 28 second win to make it 1-1.

So what next? I don’t think that Alinghi will be fazed by this. I sailed with Butterworth on an IMS boat (the late, great, Pasquale Landolfi’s Brava) back when he was just an America’s Cup winner, rather than a triple America’s Cup winner. And I remember him having the most shocking day imaginable in Palma Bay, if there was a header out there, we were on it, unless we were going downwind… (although, as I was to discover last year, it’s possible to have worse days in Palma). But the point is - that evening, you’d never have known it, water off a duck’s back.

But today should convince the Alinghi guys that the boat isn't going to do all the work. Butterworth was asked at the press conference if he still thought the Cup was a design contest, and he replied, ‘Yes.’ And I’m still with him - but Alinghi will have to race it tighter than they have been...

And whatever, Brad’s still got all the best lines - when asked if the heart was beating a little faster in the pre-start, he replied, ‘the pacemaker’s on.’

America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:



Mark Chisnell ©