Two Days and Counting...

It’s getting closer and the fog is lifting...

Slowly, all those open questions are being answered. Not the least of which is that the Notice of Race and Sailing Instructions have finally been issued, settling those background disputes and setting up the rules of the game.

Things that have stayed the same as the Louis Vuitton Finals - all the racing will be on the Northern race area, and there will be no absolute wind limits. But the Race Committee will try to only run racing when the approximate average true wind speed is between seven and 23 knots, measured on the met buoys, which are six metres off the water.

The start is planned for 15.00 local time – but no warning signal will be given later than 17.00 (that’s new, the cut-off was later for the LV). The race course will be 12.6 nautical miles, which is 3.2 mile legs, the longest we saw in the Louis Vuitton Final, with a time limit of 40 minutes for each leg. That’ll need a VMG of 4.8 knots and means they’ll have to be going through the water at more than seven knots.

The major background controversy was apparently over boat substitution, and the rule now states that the teams are allowed to change their race boat, but only if the original has been damaged sufficiently seriously that it can’t be fixed in time for the next race. The Measurement Committee and Jury will be the judges of this - if the Jury thinks the damage is intentional, it may not allow the substitution, and will consider a further penalty. This is a more restrictive rule than that used in the LV, when a boat could be substituted for any reason at the cost of one win. The rule on boat mods is also more limiting than the LV - after 14.50 on Friday, the teams will only be allowed to make one alteration to their boat that requires a new measurement certificate. Any change they make has to be completed and remeasured by 08:00 on the day of the next scheduled race.

One outstanding issue that does seem to be rumbling on is Alinghi’s planned use of their backstays. Briefly, the rule was changed with the intention of making it impossible to pull the backstays forward to the mast while racing. This idea was introduced by Team New Zealand in 2000 to eliminate the backstay windage, reckoned to be worth around three quarters of a boatlength a beat.

The idea was adopted by pretty much everyone for 2003. At which point someone decided that it was unnecessarily risky to have the entire fleet of these boats racing upwind with no topmast backstay attached, and in June 2005 the rule was changed. That didn’t stop teams taking the backstays forward before the start in light air and leaving them there for the entire race, so long as they informed the measurers (remember Mascalzone fell foul of that rule and ended up resailing Desafio).

But now, Alinghi think they have found a method of circumventing the rule as it’s currently written, and after the initial Measurement Committee decision was overturned by the Jury, the matter is back with Ken McAlpine and his mates for another go – if you want more, the BOB is all over this one…

Meanwhile… Alinghi have finally announced that they will use SUI100, the new boat. It was launched in March this year, hasn’t yet raced officially, and the consensus amongst the pundits seems to be that it hasn’t raced against any of the other teams in the unofficial warm-ups either.

So Emirates TNZ will face a largely unknown package. They will have been watching the Swiss practice, but they can’t be sure if the new boat prefers to sail high and slow, or low and fast, if it’s weaker upwind or down, in a breeze or the light. And nor do they yet know which of the different styles – Baird or Holmberg – they will face in the starting box. It’s been a long time waiting to find out who will steer Alinghi. It’s due to be announced Friday, and we’ll also get the coin toss for starboard entry for the first start. And then all that’s left are some sailboat races…

Who’s going to win them? I’m going for Alinghi, for one simple reason – the America’s Cup is a boatspeed race. Alinghi have had a technical advantage, they’ve been quicker than the rest of the Cup fleet, for the last five years. The last time they all raced, in Act 13, there was no sign that this had been diminished. And it’s highly unlikely that two and a half months of Louis Vuitton racing will have closed the gap.

There’s a whole bunch of other stuff in the mix: Alinghi have torn some sails in training and looked a bit ragged round the practice track; there have been persistent rumours about discontent within the team; and they’ve left it really late to announce a helmsman, when recent Cup history tells us that the thing is usually won by a long-standing afterguard combo.

Then there’s the talk that the Swiss have built their boats for the stronger sea breeze expected at this time of year – of which, there is currently little sign - while NZL 92 appeared quickest in 8-10 knots against the yardstick of the challenger fleet. And the Kiwis sailed their boat beautifully in the Louis Vuitton Final, and have done some good work on their sail development during the racing. But I doubt that Emirates TNZ have had any real opportunity to move the basic package of hull, foils and rig forward since they left NZ in the Spring.

All that time, Alinghi have been grinding through the options, testing and rejecting, getting that little bit quicker. And in the end, I think it'll come down to speed, because it always has in the past. It would be a rash man that would bet against five years of Alinghi dominance, and 156 years of history…

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Mark Chisnell ©