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Rod Davis- When mind games become the battle field for a championship

by Rod Davis on 25 Sep 2012
Audi Azzurra Sailing Team - 52 Super Series, Audi Valencia Cup 2012 Xaume Olleros / 52 Super Series

Double Olympic medalist and long time US and NZL America's Cup crew, skipper and coach, Rod Davis, has been in the coach boat for the Audi Azzurra Sailing team in the final round of the TP52 Super Series, sailed out of Valencia, Spain.

I would love to tell you, I engineered one of the great comeback victories in years, but I didn’t.

I was part of it, but no more a part, than each of the Azzurra/Matador family, or what is officially called the Audi Azzurra Sailing Team. Man for Man they fronted up with an impeccable performance.

The situation was simple, Quantum was six points ahead for the TP-52 Super Series Championship going to the last regatta. The scene was former America’s Cup venue Valencia. The instructions were clear from the owner, sponsor and yacht club - go all out for the win, or die trying.

I quite like that attitude - to play for a win not a tie. In this case we might drop to third, but that is a chance they were willing to take. First part of making any game plan is to match your strengths to your competition’s weaknesses.

Azzurra and Quantum are sister ships, so have very similar performance though the wind ranges. Quantum is the 2011 champion. Both boats have excellent sail programs and great crews.

No clear advantage, for either boat.

Ed Baird, the skipper of Quantum, is a seasoned veteran. All season Ed has been mindful of Azzurra’s position around the start line, most times getting the better of the deal when the gun goes off.

With only eight races, we, (Auzzura) needed to start cutting away at their lead from the very outset. The first day was going to be critical for two reasons - firstly, momentum. And second, if Quantum went another two or three points out on us, it would be all over.

Blindly charging into a match race would be almost suicidal, as Ed Baird is an America’s Cup winner and a past match racing world champion. We had to knock him off balance early, and keep him off balance.

But how?

The Azzura program is very much a Latin program, with most of the team from Argentina and Italy. Quantum is American.

Flair, and a wee bit of chaos, versus structure and procedure.

OK, that is the way we are going to play it: Shock and Awe.

Surprise 1: Give them a different look around the start line. Francesco Bruni took on the starting duties, an excellent match racer in his own right.

Surprise 2: Come out with an aggressive one-on-one battle from warning signal. Don’t wait until the Prep Signal like a 'normal' match race.

Surprise 3: Forget the rest of the fleet. If we’re last and second to last, it does not matter. This has to be Shock and Awe.

Quite how, Quantum did not see it coming is a bit mystery.

Our helmsman, Bruni was on fire around the start, and Quantum got caught flat footed on the first day. We did have a brain explosion on board Azzurra in the last race of Day 1, when we brushed the finish mark when in second place. The unforced error put us into last place for that race. Otherwise, we got everything we hoped and cut Quantum’s overall lead to three points.

As we circled around to refinish, there was enough foul language coming from the coach box (boat), to make a maiden blush. The tirade lasted several minutes - as much because of the lost points and, even worse, we potentially gave away our momentum, both in our minds and theirs. Mistakes like this just can’t happen. Quantum was off balance and we need them to stay there.

Next day we pushed to the next phase of the plan - to be Pro-Active and force them to be Re-Active.

Race 4 would bring Surprise 4: Start the dance even earlier, way before warning signal.

The best time to jump on the tail of your competition is when he is 'pinging' the ends of the line. (Pinging is where you sail by, and enter the actual position of the starting marks in the starting package GPS.) We knew they had to do it at some point, and that was our moment to strike. We had to be ready. All our transfers from the chase boat finished, and our people in race positions. Option 1 was to ping the marks earlier than Quantum and then jump them. Option 2 was to ping right behind them and do both at once. Even so, staying on the tail of a boat for 10 minutes was going to have its challenges.

Often it’s not the problems you see, that you should agonize over. You can plan for those.

No, it’s the problems we don’t see coming that, are the real worry. This is where everyone on the team contributed with 'what if this happens' to develop a moves for different things that could happen.

What rules applied? Racing Rules, or the Regulations for Preventing Collisions as Sea?

What happens if they have the chase boat along side, transferring people or sails, or are under tow? What if there is a collision between the two boats? What about the other boats in the race - how do we use them to keep the pressure on our target?

At times it reminded me of Spy vs Spy from the old 'Mad' comic books. Remember the White spy vs the Black one, as they play tricks on each other?

One thing was becoming clear; the game will earlier with each start. Staying on their tail would be difficult.

For the next race - Surprise 5 - Engines.

The rules allow use of the engine up to the preparatory signal. Ed wasn’t expecting that one. Although he is a cool customer, he finished Day 2 clearly off balance. And Azzurra gained another three points to be tied for the season. Phase 1 was completed, and it was all on for the last three races.

Problem was we had used up all our surprise cards. And we had to deal with another complication in the form of triple Olympic Gold Medalist, Jochen Schumann, and the All-4-1 team. They were just two points away behind us in this event, and desperate to win the last regatta of the season.

They could break ranks with the rest of the fleet, who were staying neutral and seem to be enjoying the show.

Now, Schumann became a potential participant. Their mission is to gain two points on us, and win the regatta, while we are evolved in our war with Quantum for the season points. The thought of him tacking on us, while we tried to keep control of each situation was not a pleasant thought.

Start your engines!

One thing was certain - Quantum’s and Azzurra’s engines’ gear boxes were going to take a beating. On my walk home I was thinking, maybe we should rent two cheap cars find a big parking lot and a bit of dry land practice at this thing - as I am not sure how it will play out. And what rules apply when the both boats are motoring, reversing and circling with jibs down? It will be complete bedlam. This little dance could start from the time the boats leave the dock.

At our internal morning meeting, the idea put on the table, now that we are even on points, and as to whether we wanted to put some order in the game. Agree to some kind of rules of engagement. In the end it was pointed out to that 'we Latinos live closer to the edge of chaos then the Americans, so we feel more comfortable with it'. Our Strength versus their Weakness.

You might think that is taking the game too far. And I would 100% agree if an owner driver was involved. But these are grown boys. All are professional sailors, who get paid big bucks to win championships.

It’s been a hard ball game between the teams all season. No hard feelings, just two teams having a ding-dong battle. Here an interesting fact - there was only one umpire call between the two teams in the whole regatta, and it was a green flag. The game was being played hard, but clean.

The next two races were a surprise to everyone. Yes, the gear boxes got a work out - that was pretty funny to watch. But in the end both boats started with the fleet. Azzurra won both races and Quantum was third in both. That’s the Yachting equivalent of a mid-order batting collapse in Cricket.

Season decided. War over.

A kind of stunned silence came over the coach boat as we realised it was over - with a race to spare. Peace was going to break out.

Coaches tend to a paranoid bunch - so we started thinking. 'What are we missing?' 'Where are we going to get blindsided on this one?'

Like the Spy vs Spy game.

It’s the ones you don’t know about, that you cause you the most trouble.

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