Pass Me Another Superlative

Finals are so often a disappointment. I’ve sat through more than my fair share of dreary America’s Cups, but I’ve also sat through a bunch of dreary soccer World Cup Finals, Test Matches and Rugby World Cups. But every now and again, a couple of teams come along and produce a classic. Sometimes it’s for all the wrong reasons – the stronger team who flunk it. Liverpool’s recovery from 3-0 down against a superior AC Milan side in the 2005 European Champions League Final springs to mind.

So it’s even rarer when two teams come together who are so closely matched, so composed in the execution of their craft, that together they put down a marker in the history books, through their sheer and absolute bloody-minded refusal to roll over and die.

It’s even rarer in an event which only deigns to come round every three or four years at best.

We saw something very special in the last eleven days, but it’s finally over. The thirty second America’s Cup is done, and the celebrations and commiserations have begun. A 5-2 win for Alinghi - the Cup stays in Europe, and Ernesto Bertarelli’s team will defend again. But I would imagine that whichever side they’re on, they’re going to hit it pretty hard tonight. They’ve made history, departed the field of dreams, and now it’s left for others to write the record.

When the adrenaline has ebbed and the pulse finally calmed, will this be seen as the greatest ever America’s Cup match?

The context of the 1983 Cup - the ending of the longest winning streak in history, the recovery by an Australian team that found itself 3-1 down in the fastest boat, the manner of the pass in that penultimate run - it all takes some beating. As a page in the history of the Cup, it will never be matched. But for sheer wire-to-wire, edge of the seat, unable to relax action in every single race, this Match leaves it for dust.

So how else could you finish this most extraordinary contest than with a final race delta of a single second, the closest margin ever in a Cup race after the lead has changed hands on every single leg, with the final pass a couple of metres short of the finish?

Sometimes, it’s just the way it was meant to be.

It started with Dean Barker and ETNZ again avoiding the dial-up, ducking to leeward of Ed Baird as Alinghi turned into the wind. Baird got his boat back onto port pretty quickly, but Barker got the tack in fast enough to get right on the Swiss boat’s tail.

So they headed for the committee boat, ETNZ close enough to stop the Swiss from gybing, but not in a position to force them to windward. With lots of time on the clock, Baird sailed as deep into the box as he dared and then tacked round to starboard. The Kiwis tacked with them, and immediately started looking to get to leeward for the hook, so they could push Alinghi back towards the line early.

Ed Baird wriggled as hard as he could, tacking to port for a while, luffing and stalling, burning time off the clock, but Dean Barker had all the cards. And in the end the Kiwis chose to start tight to leeward, controlling the final approach, with their boat jammed up under the Swiss. And it looked as though Alinghi would have to tack away off the line.

But what happened next, established why the America’s Cup is still ultimately a design race. Alinghi held… and held… and held. ETNZ tactician, Terry Hutchinson said afterwards that they started in a maximum right hand shift, and it must have seemed like they waited for ever for enough left-shift to finally get rid of the Swiss – but a tiny boat speed edge goes a long way in this game.

Finally, the Kiwis forced the Swiss away, and we had the two boats on port headed for the layline. Alinghi were really patient, slowly gaining a handful of metres, knowing they couldn’t go back before they had enough to force the Kiwis to tack leebow, but they couldn’t leave it too late or they’d get trapped on the layline. Then, as they have done a few times in this event, Alinghi hit another gear. On this occasion it was when they started tacking. At the third cross, the Kiwis decided they couldn’t live with the losses and held on starboard. Alinghi tacked up on their hip, just behind and to windward.

When the Kiwis finally did come back to port, Alinghi were close enough that they could slingshot themselves into the cross with a speed build, then luff up as the Kiwis tacked leebow. Once again, the Swiss had found themselves enough of a lane to hold their position to windward – but could they force the Kiwis all the way over the layline?

It was desperately close – Barker and his trimmers doing their utmost to get up to Alinghi and force them away. When Alinghi finally tacked they were barely laying, with the Kiwis tacking to windward, and almost bow to bow. Now it was Alinghi’s turn to be aggressive, they luffed the Kiwis hard, almost head to wind, then bore away and accelerated. The leeward boat controls this game, because they can choose when to accelerate. The first time the Swiss crept ahead, and the second time Alinghi waited until the Kiwi boat lost a tiny bit of grip with the foils as they slowed. Alinghi bore away and Dean Barker and co. took another boat length to get their boat moving – Alinghi rounded seven seconds in front.

But the Kiwis were plenty close enough to attack on the run. And they were close enough to worry Brad Butterworth into the early gybe, away from the stronger right hand side of the course and the starboard advantage. To make matters worse for the Swiss, they were having problems with their gybing – the source of which hasn’t been revealed. At the next cross, Alinghi couldn’t get their gybe in ahead of ETNZ, and ended up crossing in front of the Kiwis.

Immediately, Terry Hutchinson saw his opportunity and gybed to go with the Swiss. They were now both on port, heading for the layline with the Kiwis in the perfect position to jump the Alinghi on the gybe to the gate. Butterworth knew he was in trouble, and the Swiss finally got a gybe off almost simultaneously – but in a fantastic bit of sailing on the New Zealand boat, they managed to gybe back and got right on Alinghi’s air. From there they rode the waves and pressure down, and got themselves in front of Alinghi and we had another pass.

Once again, Terry Hutchinson and his Kiwi strategists had the choice of sides at the gate, and just like race six, they took the left-hand mark (looking upwind). Hutchinson saying afterwards that they chose it for a little bias (it was closer, there was a left hand shift) and the clean rounding (they were approaching on starboard and it was a simple leeward drop). Alinghi helmsman, Ed Baird said afterwards that they were happy to take whatever the Kiwis gave them – the bias or the starboard advantage. It was just unfortunate for Terry Hutchinson that he had to make a choice. Another day, another five minutes, and he could have got both. But that’s yacht racing, even at this level.

So then we got an almost complete replay of the first beat. Alinghi waited their moment, came across on a shift, the Kiwis had to tack leebow and the tacking duel started. Again the Kiwis had to bail out to stem the losses and both boats settled on starboard. But Terry Hutchinson wasn’t going to repeat any more of the first beat. This time he waited until the end before he tacked back at the Swiss.

The Kiwis overstood to ensure that they could still lay the mark on port once they'd gone behind the Swiss. And they bore away hard to do the duck - they want to get behind the Swiss, luff up and round the mark, while the Swiss are still tacking.

But although the Swiss are right of way boat, the rules allow them to make it hard for the Kiwis to go behind them. So the Swiss immediately bore away at them, and we had the two boats reaching at each other. Now ETNZ had to bear away further to keep avoiding the collision as they got closer – and we're into the dial-down, which Brad Butterworth has been prepping his crew on for the last five minutes.

The Swiss on starboard had to be careful, there's a point beyond which they can't keep bearing away, because the Kiwis can no longer avoid the collision, and they can't go below a true wind angle of 90. But if the Swiss got it right, they can force the Kiwis to go so far to leeward to get behind them, that the Alinghi can get the tack in before the Kiwis can luff up and round the mark...

So, at the wheel of ETNZ, Dean Barker knew that if he went too far to leeward he’s toast. He had to do the minimum bear away to get behind the Swiss, and for a few moments that was a moving target as the Swiss bore away at him… But if he didn’t bear away enough to keep clear of the Swiss once they started holding their course (assuming the Swiss start holding their course early enough not to be judged by the umpires to have made it impossible for the Kiwis to keep clear) then Barker hasn’t avoided a right of way boat.

And that, in the view of the umpires, was what happened. As they closed the Kiwis were not getting in front of the Swiss, and Barker did a second big bear away, but it was judged by the umpires to be too late. It also left the Kiwis with such a huge luff to get back to the mark that the Swiss were able to tack and round in front.

It all happened fast, and the umpires were trying to make the judgement from their boats rather than overhead - it’s tough. But having seen the aerial shots in replay, and they only showed the last few seconds rather than the whole thing, it did look like the penalty was fair. But this will be chewed over for a long while…

So, the Swiss led round with a twelve second advantage, and a penalty to the good. Game over, right? Wrong. Unbelievably, there’s one more twist to this plot. If you were John McClane and this was a Die Hard movie, then you’d have already watched the baddie die four times, and frankly, when he gets back up for the fifth it’s starting to get a little unrealistic…

Unsurprisingly, the Swiss settled quicker into the run, and the 12 seconds turned into four boat lengths by the time the Kiwis gybed away. Alinghi seemed to have sorted out their handling problems, and were keeping themselves jammed between the man and the mark. Then the Kiwis split again and this time Brad Butterworth either didn’t or couldn’t go with them. When Alinghi went, it was with their air behind the Kiwis and a little separation had opened…

What all the commentators and anyone with access to the Met buoys could see by now, was that the wind had dropped to 8 knots and gone 30 or more degrees to the left at the finish line. Both boats are on starboard, and they’re about to get hit by the mother of all headers.

It was the Kiwis that spotted it first, their headsail was up on deck immediately, and they bore away, hoisted the jib and dropped the spinnaker. The change was smooth, and they were now to windward of the Swiss, in the new breeze and headed straight at the line.

Things were not going so well for the Swiss. Brad Butterworth said at the press conference, ‘I was a bit in denial that the breeze wasn’t going to hold, but Warwick Fleury did a good job of coaxing us to get the jib up on deck and get things going.’ It was just in time. The spinnaker pole broke off the mast as the breeze came on the bow and the pole went forward to the headstay and loaded up. For a while it was organized chaos on the Swiss boat. And all the time the Kiwis are reaching straight at the finish. Can they possibly build a big enough lead to get the penalty complete?

The gain-line clicked up… one length, two lengths… still the Swiss haven’t sorted out the mess… three lengths, almost four by the time the Kiwis swung their bow into the wind to shed the penalty…

No one can breathe.

But the Swiss were finally rumbling. And it was not a normal penalty, done by swinging around the leeward mark. The Kiwis had to luff, tack through the wind, and then tack back to get to the finish line. It’s horribly slow. And if you wanted to be absolutely brutal, you’d say that the Kiwis started it too early. But the finishing line has been moved, they don't have it 'pinged' in the computer, and they don't have a transit, so quite how they could have called it any better, I don't know...

The final seconds were just about unwatchable. The Kiwis got the penalty cleared and their bow back down and pointed at the finish - but they’re a full length short of the line. And it takes them forever to get the 24 tons of lead moving again… and Alinghi are now at full speed, blasting in to leeward…

History will record that the bow of Alinghi crossed the line a single second before that of Emirates TNZ. When he was asked what was going through his mind at that point, Brad Butterworth replied, ‘Put up the blue flag.’ It seemed to take an eternity for the race committee to decide. An almost surreal silence fell on the watching spectator fleet. And then… there it was. It was over.

It’s been a ride for everyone, but the sailors have really been through the mill. At the press conference the Alinghi afterguard took it in turns to tell us it was the biggest and the best. Ernesto Bertarelli commented, ‘This is definitely bigger and better than last time. It has been much, much harder than I ever thought it would be…’ He went on, ‘I want to thank and mention the whole team. It's been a real lesson in life. One of the hardest things I've ever done and today is probably, beside the birth of my kids, the best day of my life.’

Even Brad Butterworth thought this was his favourite win, and when asked if he was sure, stuck to it. And why not? There was plenty of history being made, along with Murray Jones, Warwick Fleury, Simon Daubney and Dean Phipps, Butterworth had just won his fourth America’s Cup.

Juan Vila became the first Spanish citizen to win, and did it on his home waters.

Simon Daubney told us that the key to the win had been the in-house racing. He then managed to name all 17 of the guys on the Alinghi B-boat. ‘We get to do the interviews, but the thing I’m proudest of, is those guys.’ Another class act.

And, perhaps inevitably, Brad Butterworth was asked once again, if he still thought the America’s Cup was a design game. And once again, he said yes. He pointed to the line-up off the start when the Swiss boat had held for what seemed an unfeasibly long time to windward of the Kiwis, and told us that you can’t sail in that close proximity to another yacht without an edge. Terry Hutchinson seemed to concur when he told us that in these last races, they just didn’t quite seem to have enough…

But I can tell you after watching this, that while you’re still going to have to turn up with the fastest boat to win the thirty third America’s Cup, you’d better be ready to race the friggin’ paint off it…

And finally, Bertarelli revealed just what he thought they were racing for – right or wrong, he believed that if ETNZ had won, his team would have been shut out of the competition by the Kiwis changing the nationality rules. Alinghi, for Ernesto Bertarelli, had been racing for their very existence for the last 11 days.

But Alinghi have won, and once again they get to make the rules – Bertarelli would not be drawn on the Protocol. The documents were signed with Desafio Espanol - as everyone expected – right as the boats finished. But we’ll have to wait till Thursday to find out what’s in them.

And the Kiwis? They weren't at (not invited, apparently) the final press conference, but several of them had been interviewed prior to that – Grant Dalton looked utterly gutted as he said, ‘Our guys have done an amazing job and right now the guys aren't feeling that sharp - it's been a long four years. I'm of course enormously proud of them but Alinghi did a better job than us. We enjoyed the Louis Vuitton Cup but knew it was a just a step along the rung to the ultimate prize of the America's Cup. We didn't come here to take part. We just came here to win it and we haven't done that. So now we have to re-group and see what the future holds.’

You gotta feel for them. But while history is traditionally written by the victors, hell will freeze over before anyone forgets the contribution these guys made to the greatest America's Cup match ever.

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Mark Chisnell ©