Softly, softly…

The America’s Cup began as you might have expected – cautiously. Or was it nervously?

It's the moment, isn't it, the start of the first race of an America's Cup. Both boats come off the line and everyone holds their breath... it's... it's... it's... holy cow. It's the Kiwis!

And then it wasn't.

Alinghi really tiptoed round the course, but nevertheless they opened their account with a solid 35 second win. But it had all started so brightly for Dean Barker and ETNZ. They had the controlling right-hand side of the entry, and after bailing out of the dial-up first, came straight back at Alinghi, throwing a quick gybe in and getting the Emirates boat to leeward.

ETNZ invite Alinghi to dance. photo Outside Images

Aboard Alinghi, Ed Baird’s response was to put his boat into the wind to gain as much separation as possible from ETNZ – it looked like a refusal to engage in a close quarters battle. The bigger the windward/leeward distance between the pair, the easier it would be for Baird to evade Barker if he came looking for trouble from that leeward berth.

Barker seemed to accept this, and so when Alinghi turned downwind, ETNZ also bore away and led downwind into the box, with Alinghi chasing them in a more conventional set-up. But when Barker turned back to the line, it was Ed Baird that had the choice – he chose the left, turning inside ETNZ and setting up to leeward of the Kiwis. Alinghi’s navigator, Juan Vila explained at the press conference that their initial call was for an oscillating breeze, but changed it late to wanting the left. In the end, that was the race winner. Barker didn’t contest it on the water, and he confirmed at the press conference that the Kiwis call was for the right.

From there, Ed Baird did a good job of keeping tight to leeward of ETNZ – both boats coasting towards the committee boat for a long while. But the Kiwis had done an equally good job of their positioning prior to the gybe, and there was never much chance of a shut-out at the boat. When they both turned down to accelerate for the line, it was the Kiwis that did it a little better, and although Alinghi were close to them, ETNZ were far enough forward to be able to live. So we had a clean start, and with the two boats wanting different sides, no pre-start fireworks on day one. The massive spectator fleet having to be content with the real ones as they left the dock.

Initially, it was the Kiwis on the right hand side that looked good – they lifted off Alinghi and held their lane, easing out to almost a length lead. And it appeared that once again that Roger Badham and the Emirates weather team had woven their magic. But then it started to cave on them - Dean Barker said that the breeze headed them 12-15 degrees, and that was too much. They started to fall into Alinghi and tacked away. Barker saying they were happy to do so, feeling the right would come good again.

It didn’t.

And that was the race. It’s all it takes at this level. Alinghi went a little further, tacked to port to windward of the Kiwis, and slowly edged into a one length lead as the breeze continued to go left. ETNZ tactician, Terry Hutchinson had to call for a tack to avoid getting trapped into the right hand corner, and Alinghi won the first cross.

Interesting hardware for Alinghi windspotter, Murray Jones. The backpack appears to drive a heads-up display that gives him all the boat's data while he's up the rig. photo Ingrid Abery.

From there the Swiss boat stretched a little, making the Kiwis look so-so at what had previously been a strength – tacking. But ETNZ weren’t going away, and Hutchinson called some moves that would have looked slick on the Studio 54 dance floor, keeping the deficit down to 13 seconds at the top mark.

The first run started out with Alinghi making a little gain away from the mark, then the Kiwis came back at them, and then, almost out of nowhere, Alinghi turned two lengths on the gain line into five and a 20 second lead at the gate.

How did they do it? The answers were cagey at the press conference. The short chop was unusual, because this was a gradient easterly wind rather than a true sea breeze, it had been blowing long enough to get a seaway running. And Adam Beashel, the ETNZ wind spotter, reckoned that the shifts were harder to read and bigger – 15 degrees rather than 6 degrees – than with the conventional sea breeze. It meant that if you could get a wave, some pressure and a shift all at once, there were some big gains to be made.

And Alinghi did, several times, both on the first run, and the second, when they converted a 14 second lead at the top mark into a 35 second lead at the finish. Does it mean that Alinghi are quicker downwind… neither Barker nor Alinghi navigator, Juan Vila would be drawn on that at the press conference. And fair enough, it wasn’t good downwind testing conditions, as they say in the debriefs. But the fact that it happened twice is going to get everyone talking, particularly when the downwind legs were previously NZL 92’s forte. But then, they’ve changed the bulb to a more upwind orientated one, so…

But wait… the observant amongst you will have noticed that I missed a bit – the bit where the Kiwis made all of their gains, 20 seconds behind at the gate, closing to a 14 second lead by the top mark. What was interesting here was that Alinghi initially took the left. They chose to round the left-hand gate mark – which was also a much easier drop for them – but then took the right at the first cross. So did they change their minds? Or was the left-hand mark taken because it was the more conservative manoeuver?

Or to rephrase it, was this the confidence of a team that knows it has the quicker boat and doesn’t have to push it on the corners, much as they hadn’t pushed it at the start? Or was it a team that haven’t raced for a while and looked a little nervous? A lot’s riding on the answer…

Either way, Alinghi held onto the right after that, despite the Kiwis initially closing the gap from the left after the Swiss swopped sides. But the right came good for Alinghi tactician, Brad Butterworth and co. eventually, and they never looked threatened once they started tacking and got ETNZ out towards the layline.

Alinghi may well have had the higher anxiety levels going into today (with the exception of the completely un-phase-able Butterworth, anyway). Given the time they’ve been away from this ‘real’ racing it would have been a surprise to see them go toe-to-toe with the battle-hardened Kiwi team. But whatever advantage the Kiwis had from that, it’s long gone... Alinghi’s boat handling got almost visibly slicker as the race went on, and now they have a win on the board. And what do we know about one win on the board? ETNZ can’t afford to let it become two…

What else can I tell ya… Kimball Livingston (of Sail Magazine and the entertaining Got Live blog, and no, no one else knows why it’s called that either) led a round of applause at the press conference for Dean Barker for showing up – you may gather that the press corps is pretty sick of the skippers ducking it. And fair due to Barker, turning up after the first race, after a loss… And he got a good laugh - asked about the differences between being 1-0 down today, and 1-0 down in 2003, he commented that it was nice to finish the first race. Class act, Deano.

And finally… there were about 800 boats out there, and 70,000 people are reckoned to have gone through the port by the time it shuts tonight, which is a new daily record, and about what you’d get at a top Premier League football match.

Oh, and the All Blacks beat the Springboks 26- 21 in South Africa… it’s not all bad, Kiwis…

And yes, I know I haven't quite got the hang of the photo layout thingy, but I've been wrestling with it for hours and I'm starving and frankly, it'll have to do...

America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

Mark Chisnell ©