The first day of the Preliminary Regatta of the 37th America’s Cup was a day of mixed fortunes, drama, desperation, nail-biting excitement, exquisite light-airs technique and tension untold with a new name on the podium and brilliance shining through.
The story of the day was one that the greatest fiction writers would struggle to script. Fickle winds with cruel zephyrs made flight on the foils the rarest, most precious, commodity and for even the best sailors on the planet, it was hard sailing. Race one produced a fine and deserved result with the Orient Express Racing Team scoring a memorable and morale-boosting win whilst in the second race, Emirates Team New Zealand romped to a thunderous victory, rising from their foils whilst the rest of the fleet remained in displacement mode, chased down Alinghi Red Bull Racing and recorded what can only be described an outstanding victory.
Overnight the leaderboard shows Orient Express Racing Team topping the standings on 15 points with Emirates Team New Zealand in second, close behind on 13 points after just two of the scheduled four races were completed as light airs from the south-south-east dogged the racecourse, rising hopefully above the pre-set lower limit of 6.5 knots to get racing underway before dropping cruelly.
In the ultimate game of snakes and ladders, persistence was rewarded but after sailing, the team of the moment, Orient Express Racing Team were rightly celebrating. Quentin Delapierre, the enigmatic new hero of French sailing spoke for the whole team afterwards saying: “I feel proud of the whole team, the sponsors also. Today we did a good job not just because of the result but because we improved so much technically. We still have so much to do for sure, but today it was a really good feeling to see the improvement against the others and as a group to know that we can achieve it.”
Quentin, with a broad smile, continued: “We can feel the energy inside the team, the dynamic, and obviously because we are quite new, it’s pretty cool to see smiles and it’s so rewarding for the technical team who worked so, so hard just to be here and able to race the others with no technical problems – that’s a real achievement. I’m super happy, when you come back to the base to applause, big smiles, we feel proud, and this is good for us now to have a bigger dynamic in the team.”
Andy Maloney, the trimmer in the starboard pod onboard Emirates Team New Zealand behind skipper Pete Burling, talked through the Kiwi light-airs technique, saying: “It definitely takes all four of us to tack the boat and we’ve all got to be super accurate through the manoeuvre. The difference is perhaps half a knot of breeze but we know exactly what we’re trying to achieve in those tacks and between races we did a good job of practicing them and then going into that second race we were really confident that if we could get up on the foils, that we’d be able to manoeuvre around the racetrack and we were just pretty pleased that once we did get up and foiling that we executed those manoeuvres.”
Talking about the final run where precision and execution were everything, Andy commented: “Once we were the only boat up and foiling it wasn’t about VMG, it was about staying on the foils, and we just wanted to make sure that we had enough pace to foil through the lulls and then hopefully link up with a nice little puff to execute the next manoeuvre.”
Yves Detrey, trimmer onboard Alinghi Red Bull Racing who were arguably one gybe away from a win in the second race, looked dejected at the result but positive about how the team are improving, saying: “You need a little bit of luck. We dropped off the foils just before the start (of the second race) and then we had that little puff to get back up on the foil and get back to the line and start racing. It was very marginal all the way around. We did some very nice manoeuvres at the right time, but unfortunately on the very last one, we didn’t quite nail it. It’s a fine balance between your entry speed, your exit, your positions on the sails, your trimming of the sails, board raise, everything together. It feels a little bit bitter for us because we didn’t get that last gybe but for sure we’ve been looking quite nice, and we take the positives through to tomorrow.”
Jimmy Spithill, helmsman of Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli was open and honest about the first race where the team were incorrectly scored a DNS (Did Not Start) and revealed that the team are challenging the decision at a hearing later this evening: “I think it’s quite clear that there’s a mistake that’s been made by the umpires and race management and we’re going to go to a hearing tonight.” (Note: Following that hearing and a review of the starting protocols undertaken on course, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli have been re-instated in second place in Race 1, scoring 7 points.)
Jimmy did however give credit to Emirates Team New Zealand on a day where take-off and maintaining power was tough: “When there’s not enough wind, yes it’s very tricky to take off. We actually did the same (as Emirates Team New Zealand), we got up and going again in that last race on port tack but unfortunately at that point we ended up right at the boundary with no wind and had to tack. We just couldn’t finish the acceleration to pull off the tack, but the Kiwis did and full credit to them.”
Riley Gibbs, the 26 year-old trimmer onboard NYYC American Magic certainly wasn’t dwelling on the experience of the day saying: “After a day like that, it was quite punishing, but we’re really focussed on tomorrow and what’s ahead so we’re not going to dwell on it too hard… looking forward to tomorrow and we’re hopeful of a better forecast. In that last race we were actually ahead of New Zealand (before they got foiling) and we should have done a better job of covering them after the tack and yeah in these foiling boats, it’s a bit like surfing or any dynamic sport, you get a bit of a bump behind you and it’s easier to surf and accelerate. It was easier to get up on port tack with the waves behind, starboard was into the waves and despite the righty pressure it was always false hope.”
For Ben Ainslie, skipper of INEOS Britannia, he fronted the questions with his usual honesty saying: “It wasn’t a great day for us. Very difficult conditions and I think our lack of time in the boat really showed against some of the other teams who were much slicker than us and did a much better job than we did. I suppose if I was looking for positives, it feels like we are getting better in terms of sticking some of these lighter airs manoeuvres but still not as good as some of the other teams. We’re making steps forward but perhaps not quick enough for now and when you’re out racing you want to be at the front of the fleet and not the back.”
Racing continues tomorrow with what looks like an improving forecast and hopes are high that the first Preliminary Regatta on the road to the 37th America’s Cup will conclude in fine style.
Race 1 Winner: Orient Express Racing Team (+10pts)
2nd: Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (+7pts), 3rd: NYYC American Magic (+5pts), 4th: Emirates Team New Zealand (+3pts), 5th: Alinghi Red Bull Racing (+2pts), 6th: INEOS Britannia (+1pts).
After a couple of push-backs, the Race Committee finally attained a wind reading over a five-minute period above 6.5 knots to allow racing to get underway under cloudless skies, 26-degree heat and 7-8 knots at the start. If the start is reckoned to determine 70% of the result, it was a surprise to see so many boats trapped above the line to start cleanly with Alinghi Red Bull Racing far to windward and INEOS Britannia struggling to get back. A slight drop in the wind caused havoc but for NYYC American Magic who dipped the line and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli who appeared to do the same, both appeared to ace the start down at the pin end and headed out to the left-hand boundary.
Emirates Team New Zealand were caught short on their time-on-distance out at the starboard end of the line, but along with INEOS Britannia, managed to eke across the line a good 20 seconds down. INEOS Britannia went for a port tack start and fell off their foils almost immediately. As the Americans and Italians tacked at the boundary on to port, the Kiwis were at full pace on starboard tack and incredibly crossed ahead of the Italians before hitting the left boundary and executing a perfect foiling tack with plenty of aggressive pumping of the mainsail to keep flying. This was not a race for tacking, manoeuvres were both costly and risky, and the Americans wisely headed over far right, bringing the Italians with them but as they both tacked back, Emirates Team New Zealand were in the lead.
However, the story of the leg, and indeed the race, were the French Orient Express Racing Team who made a plum start on port, hit the boundary and then sailed a blinder, maintaining flight, and almost anonymously thundered through onto the layline for the port gate after a brilliant beat where they got completely out of phase with the others, and caught everyone by surprise. Poor judgement of the layline at the starboard top gate saw the Kiwis forced to squeeze and in doing so, dropped off the foils and as the wind faltered, were never able to get back again.
Orient Express Racing Team elected to fast-track to round the port gate at pace and stole the lead whilst Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, having rounded the starboard gate, filed past the wallowing Kiwis and headed off downwind. The initial gybe back to course put the Italians in the lead as the sailors struggled to keep flight and the French headed far left to the boundary (looking down the course) desperate to stay in their puff.
At the gybe to starboard, they fell off the foils but pretty soon the whole fleet were off their foils after their second gybes and a desperate displacement run ensued as the race committee shortened the course to just two legs with the finish at the end of the first downwind. With the wind almost shutting down completely, it was a three-boat race to the finish with Orient Express Racing Team holding the ace cards having worked their way into the middle of the course whilst American Magic went right (looking down the course) and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli played the left. The premium was on keeping moving, keeping way, and keeping cool. The outstanding French were in their sailing element.
Bouncing between the two extremes, Quentin Delapierre, Kevin Peponnet and the team kept the boat rolling with the trimmers, Jason Waterhouse and Mathieu Vandame, out of their pods, shifting their bodyweight around to keep going and eat up the metres to the finish.
With the line approaching fast, a crucial port/starboard low-speed gybing duel, although without contact, with Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli saw the Italians gain a penalty for their foil radius being too close as the French gybed onto starboard with just metres to run to the finish line. It effectively handed the win to the French who headed out to cover the Americans, gybed on their line onto port and kept it tight to the finish to secure a memorable win – first blood and 10 vital points to the brilliance of France as they rolled in to glory.
(After crossing the line, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli were informed that they hadn’t started correctly and were scored a DNS. Update at 9pm: Following a review of the starting protocols undertaken on course, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli have been re-instated in second place in Race 1, scoring 7 points.)
FLEET RACE 2
Race 2 Winner: Emirates Team New Zealand (+10pts)
2nd: Alinghi Red Bull Racing (+7pts), 3rd: Orient Express Racing Team (+5pts), 4th: INEOS Britannia (+3pts), 5th: NYYC American Magic (+2pts), 6th: Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (+1pts).
An extraordinary race that began with five of the six boats in displacement and only Alinghi Red Bull Racing up on their foils. As the gun went to start, the Swiss were actually still way out towards the right-hand boundary (looking upwind) heading in the opposite direction but a smart gybe, 15 seconds after the gun, brought the Swiss back to execute a dip-line start and storm out to the left-hand boundary.
Building an enormous lead as the rest of the fleet wallowed in displacement at speeds from 5-9 knots, Alinghi Red Bull Racing were flying at in excess of 20 knots, leaving everyone for dead and sailing wide angles, crossing the course from boundary to boundary to minimise the manoeuvres. It was a brilliant tactic and spectators held their breath as they went into every tack, rising high on the foils to try and avoid splashdown. The Swiss were on fire, and as they hit the final left boundary for their third tack, they executed magnificently and rode into the starboard gate marker buoy on a brilliant layline. Rounding at speed and still with the whole fleet sailing in displacement mode, this was a race that they never looked like losing.
However, suddenly from dead, flat last, Emirates Team New Zealand managed to rise from the briny, get on their foils and suddenly we had a race. The Kiwis were on port tack heading for the left-hand boundary and needed to nail a high technique tack to keep foiling and as Nathan Outteridge dialled into the tack from the port helm, Peter Burling picked up on the starboard side as the boat smoothly executed with Andy Maloney trimming sweetly behind Pete to maintain flight. It was the tack of the day and in seconds, Emirates Team New Zealand were carving through the rest of the fleet that were trying everything to get on the foils. Crew members were hanging off shrouds, running forward, ooching backwards but it was all completely in vein. Emirates Team New Zealand were the only boat to get foiling from displacement unassisted. This was a tough day at the office for the fleet.
Emirates Team New Zealand almost certainly looked like they were sailing for second place but a smart, and again smooth, tack at the left boundary brought them into the layline and this time there was no pinching as the starboard marker approached. The Kiwis rounded smoothly some 1200 metres behind Alinghi Red Bull Racing who had navigated three-quarters of the leg, playing every zephyr of a dying breeze and sailing to their first win, for sure, of the 37th America’s Cup.
However, with the layline to the starboard downwind gate approaching, the Swiss went for a gybe and arguably kept the angle too deep and, agonisingly, on the windward heel post the gybe, they dug the starboard transom in and the Bull fell from her foils to a desperate displacement that they just couldn’t get out of.
Now it was full excitement as Emirates Team New Zealand tramped down the run, nailing every gybe, keeping their exit angles high whilst keeping their patience, safe in the knowledge that if they could keep flying, they would soar past the Swiss and take the lead. This wasn’t a given but with outstanding boat-handling and devastating trimming from Blair Tuke and Andy Maloney, the helms just kept it smooth, hit the starboard gate layline and rounded up with the lead in their pocket.
Now came the trickiest of upwind legs with maintaining flight, in any feasible way, the only game in town. Emirates Team New Zealand performed on another level, rising high through the crucial tacks and keeping the power on through co-ordinated mainsail and jib trimming. It was close but they eked through the tacks, played every whisper of wind, concentrated hard and with the Race Committee calling a shortened course at the windward mark, kept everything tight to nail a final tack on the left-hand boundary into the finish layline.
In the conditions, even the easiest of laylines was a problem but in a mark of their dedication to flight, they ignored the layline, kept the power on and then tacked over to starboard to finish. On the final tack, they fell from the foils but with just a few metres to run, Nathan Outteridge came scampering to the windward side and their momentum carried them through to an unlikely but utterly brilliant, outstanding win.
Alinghi Red Bull Racing were scored in second, with rest of the fleet scored their positions from the first gate – as the last point of certainty.