The second day of the Extreme Series in Cardiff was a lot kinder to Team Australia's GAC Pindar. Bouncing back from a port-starboard collision with Groupama in the final race yesterday, the Nathan Wilmot-helmed team scored a third and three fourth places in this highly-competitive event. They still sit at the bottom of the table but have taken a lot of heart from their improved performance.
Concerned that a team full of such well-credentialled sailors is struggling, I asked defending champion Leigh McMillan to explain the complexities of Extreme 40 racing to me this morning. He said that it was no surprise that the Australians were taking time to understand the boat, saying it continued to “bite” him, even after five years of racing.
Not surprisingly, with 10 big boats on a tight race course, the start is all-important. Leigh said that “pulling the trigger” at the right time is crucial. This means getting some flow over the foils so you have steering way and being ready to power up the sails at exactly the right time – a split-second early and you'll be over the line, a split-second late and you'll be gassed by the boats around you.
This explains the fluctuation in fortunes among the top boats, who might get it right three times out of four, but will always get at least one race wrong and find themselves at the rear of the fleet. Once you are “spat out the back” there is little you can do, except try to pick off one or two of the boats in front.
Alinghi, who are leading the series, showed this clearly when they were second-to-last in the first race but bounced back to win the next. During the day they won two more and finished last in the final one. As Leigh McMillan says, there are only seconds between success and total failure.
To show how the fortunes fluctuate during a day of Extreme racing, today I decided to give a brief summary of each race:
With 12 knots of wind and a light rain shower sweeping the course, only nine of the eleven boats settled on the startline with a minute to go. Groupama was still in the repair shop and GAC Pindar was penalised 15 seconds for putting her there.
However, being allowed to start in clear air at the boat end worked for Nathan Wilmot and the GAC Pindar crew. When JP Morgan BAR, ETNZ and Alinghi got their starts badly wrong, the Aussies were able to fly past them at speed and beat them to the top mark.
Out in front there was just one change after the first mark, when Red Bull went past Gazprom and extended away to a comfortable win, with SAP in third. GAC Pindar was sixth, their best result to date, ahead of yesterday's hot team, JP Morgan BAR, ETNZ, Alinghi and Realstone.
As so often happens, it was “all change” in the second race, although the conditions and course were exactly the same. The first race winner, Red Bull, stalled on the start line and was last away, while Alinghi, Oman Air and Gazprom had the best of the drag race to the first mark and stayed that way until the finish. Again, Ben Ainslie was gassed at the pin end and couldn't make much progress, finishing just ahead of GAC Pindar at the back of the fleet.
As Leigh McMillan said, Extreme 40 racing is all about timing. Whether by good luck or good planning, GAC Pindar finally timed their start and followed Oman Air, Realstone and Gazprom round the first mark. Despite another average start, Ben Ainslie was threatening and swept past the Australians on the first run.
In the closest finish so far, Realstone was able to hang on for the win, just ahead of Oman Air and JP Morgan. GAC Pindar came under pressure from Alinghi and The Wave, but came into the top mark at a better angle and was able to carry its speed through to the finish for a well-deserved fourth placing. Red Bull, winner of the first race, was dead last.
After a general recall, the boats lined up again and a slight change in wind direction meant some skippers changed tactics. ETNZ headed straight for the pin and GAC Pindar followed them at speed, dropping into a gap and making life difficult for Oman Air who were stuck behind them.
At the gun, Gazprom was called over and GAC Pindar put ETNZ and Oman Air in trouble. Locked together, they were left wallowing and Oman Air had to do penalty turns.
Out in front, the boats that had stayed towards the boat end benefited and SAP were first round the mark, followed by The Wave, Red Bull, JP Morgan and GAC Pindar.
For once, the upwind caused some changes and BAR went to the front while GAC Pindar dropped back two places. BAR snuck around the final top mark just ahead of SAP, but the Danish team had speed and swept across the line first. BAR finally had a result they were happy with and The Wave, Red Bull and Alinghi followed them home. GAC Pindar was seventh, one ahead of ETNZ. The rugby may have gone against them, but the Aussie sailors were holding the old enemy at bay.
The wind was up to 18 knots and had swung, making reaching from the pin end marginal. Despite this, Ben Ainslie and the two Omani entries lined up down there, and paid the price. They were forced to tack and were left wallowing behind the fleet.
The first boats through the leeward gate, Alinghi, Realstone and Red Bull, negotiated it safely but then another drama occurred. ETNZ and SAP were involved in a bingle and ETNZ lost steering and were swept towards the rocks.
GAC Pindar was the major beneficiary, sweeping past them into fourth position, which they held to the finish.
JP Morgan's bad start had cost them dearly, finishing ninth with only the hapless Kiwis behind them. They had burnt the big lead they established yesterday and were in danger of being run down by Alinghi, who won the race ahead of Realstone and Red Bull.
Once again, the reach to the top mark was tight and the boats who lined up down to the left paid dearly for their decision. JP Morgan nailed the start, but they and Realstone had to tack, allowing a flying GAC Pindar, who hit the line with a hull in the air, to carry the reach and round first.
Their inexperience was still showing however, and The Wave and Alinghi were able to go past them on the upwind legs. But for the first time the Australians were in the first three and moving up the leaderboard.
Ben Ainslie's bad decision had cost him the overall lead, with Alinghi moving ahead.
Getting one thing right doesn't make a complete team. Nathan Wilmot and Seve Jarvin seemed to have nailed their starting procedure, again getting away well at the boat end and turning the first mark behind the two Omani boats. But it obviously takes 470 sailors and skiffies longer to understand a multihull's upwind peculiarities. On the final beat they put GAC Pindar into irons and the whole fleet swept past.
Leigh McMillan held the lead from gun to gun, holding off Rob Greenhalgh's Oman Air and a fast-finishing Ben Ainslie, who slipped back into the overall lead.
There are dangers in starting right at the boat end, and Nathan Wilmot was reminded of them in this race. He has an Olympic gold medal but Ben Ainslie has four, and Ben was desperate. Nathan lined up in the position that had served him well in the previous starts, but Ben dropped in underneath with 15 seconds to go and pushed him out. The Australians were last off the line and stayed there all race.
The wind had swung a few degrees back, making the pin less of a gamble and Oman Air was brave enough to have a go. They were first around the mark and while the pack slowed each other down, Rob Greenhalgh and his crew vanished into the distance. Alinghi again managed to pick off a few places to finish second, ahead of Gazprom, JP Morgan, The Wave, Realstone and the Kiwis, who were back in the mix with a new rudder. SAP and Red Bull just held off the fast finishing GAC Pindar at the back of the pack.
Learning from the previous race, this time Nathan Wilmot again lined up at the boat end but this time had two others above him. Unfortunately one of them was Alinghi, who burst off the line and gassed the Australian boat.
The pin end was working again and Leigh McMillan took The Wave round the mark first, ahead of Red Bull who had also started at that end. Alinghi was the first of the right-hand pack, followed by ETNZ, SAP, JP Morgan and GAC Pindar. Oman Air and Gazprom had been called over the line, and were forced to slow and let the fleet round first.
For once, Leigh McMillan wasn't able to consolidate his lead and in the most up-and-down race of the day, Red Bull, Alinghi and JP Morgan all swept past. In an exciting reach to the last mark, the Kiwis also managed to establish an overlap and push The Wave back to fifth. At the back of the pack, GAC Pindar managed to keep only Oman Air at bay.
The race officials announced one more race before a knockout series would start.
The final “normal” race gave experienced watchers flashbacks to the America's Cup in Valencia. At the front the battle was joined between the black, red and white sails of Alinghi and the giant silver fern of ETNZ. Just as in Valencia, it was the Swiss who prevailed, but the Kiwis obviously like their new rudder.
The battle for the minor places became interesting when a wind hole developed just short of the finish line. It looked as though Gazprom had The Wave covered, but McMillan was able to eke out an extra half knot and slipped into third. Realstone was fifth, followed by Red Bull and SAP, while a problem on the final beat pushed Ben Ainslie back behind the struggling Australians.
As if the crowd hadn't had enough excitement with 10 catamarans beating each other up only metres away from the grandstands, the fleet was split into two heats for a finale. The first three in each heat would go to gold fleet, while the losers would race for places seventh to tenth.
In the first heat, Ben Ainslie had another shocking start but got lucky when Realstone's gennaker wouldn't unfurl and Gazprom was forced to do penalty turns. The qualifiers were The Wave, JP Morgan and Realstone, with Gazprom and Red Bull sent to silver fleet.
In heat two, ETNZ and Alinghi gave the other three boats a start when they decided to beat each other up on the line. This allowed SAP, Oman Air and GAC Pindar to qualify.
In the silver fleet final, the Swiss and Kiwis again beat each other up at the start but Gazprom broke the line. Red Bull was untroubled to win and the Kiwis picked up Gazprom on the final turn, with Alinghi doing their overall chances a lot of harm by finishing last.
As the six boats lined up for the gold fleet final, it looked as though Nathan Wilmot had been badly worked over when SAP hooked beneath him and closed the gap, leaving the Aussies sailing backwards looking for room. Then a tiny gap opened, Wilmot and Jarvin pulled the trigger and they shot between SAP and Oman Air for a very brave and successful start.
At the boat end Realstone, The Wave and JP Morgan had room, and the race became a procession, with those three filling the places. The Australians finished fourth to complete a decent day at the office, while Oman Air held off SAP for fifth.
After two days, Alinghi's up-and-down scoreboard leaves them on 141 points, just two points clear of The Wave, with the overnight leader, JP Morgan BAR, dropping from first to third, 10 points behind the Swiss. The next pack is SAP on 120, Realstone on 113 and Oman Air on 106.
The bottom five teams have fallen well behind, with Red Bull on 91, Gazprom on 87, ETNZ on 75 and GAC on 67. Groupama is showing only 33 points, but they scored no points today with the boat out of the water. Their Saturday score will be an average of Friday and Sunday, assuming they are back racing tomorrow.
The GAC Pindar crew was looking happier when they returned to the dock, but the physical stress of 12 races in one day was showing. “The physio is on notice, and she'll be very busy,” was one comment.
Nathan Wilmot explained the improvement as “some good starts and better course management”. He said they had tried to hold back from the line and approach with more speed, and that obviously worked.
They realise that they have a long way to go, but there is enough talent in the squad to ensure performances continue to improve. According to the experts, the key to winning in Extreme 40s is building a team that instinctively knows what everyone else will do in any given situation.
There are two more Acts before the Extreme Series visits Sydney in December. It's to be hoped these sailors are given plenty of time on the boat to forge such a bond.
– Roger McMillan in Cardiff
Position / Team / Points
1st Alinghi (SUI) Morgan Larson, Anna Tunnicliffe, Pierre-Yves Jorand, Nils Frei, Yves Detrey 141 points.
2nd The Wave, Muscat (OMA) Leigh McMillan, Sarah Ayton, Pete Greenhalgh, Kinley Fowler, Nasser Al Mashari 139 points.
3rd J.P. Morgan BAR (GBR) Ben Ainslie, Nick Hutton, Paul Campbell-James, Bleddyn Mon, Matt Cornwell 131 points.
4th SAP Extreme Sailing Team (DEN) Jes Gram-Hansen, Rasmus Køstner, Thierry Douillard, Jonas Hviid-Nielsen, Brad Farrand, Nicolai Sehested 120 points.
5th Realteam by Realstone (SUI) Jérôme Clerc, Arnaud Psarofaghis, Bruno Barbarin, Bryan Mettraux, Thierry Wassem 113 points.
6th Oman Air (OMA) Rob Greenhalgh, Ted Hackney, Kyle Langford, Hashim Al Rashdi, Musab Al Hadi 106 points.
7th Red Bull Sailing Team (AUT) Roman Hagara, Hans-Peter Steinacher, Mark Bulkeley, Shaun Mason, Stewart Dodson 91 points.
8th Gazprom Team Russia (RUS) Igor Lisovenko, Phil Robertson, Matt Adams, Pete Cumming, Aleksey Kulakov 87 points.
9th Emirates Team New Zealand (NZL) Dean Barker, Ray Davies, James Dagg, Jeremy Lomas, Edwin Delaat 75 points.
10th GAC Pindar (AUS) Nathan Wilmot, Hugh Styles, Ed Smyth, Seve Jarvin, James Wierzbowski 67 points.
11th Groupama sailing team (FRA) Franck Cammas, Romain Motteau, Tanguy Cariou, Thierry Fouchier, Devan Le Bihan 33 points.