Under dramatic skies and with the wind at the upper end of the range permissible for sailing, so the 1851 Cup got off to a fine start, at Cowes, Isale of Wight. With two races held today, quadruple Olympic medallist Ben Ainslie and his crew on TEAMORIGIN ended 2-0 up over the America’s Cup champions BMW ORACLE Racing, led by Australian James Spithill.
After a delay waiting for Cowes Week fleets to finish, so racing got underway at 16:10 BST with the start box located to the west of the Bramble bank and the weather mark off to the southwest between Gurnard and Egypt Point on the Isle of Wight.
For the first race TEAMORIGIN had the favoured starboard entry. After a relatively conventional dial-up start, the boats crossed the line evenly on starboard, with the British team by the committee boat and BMW ORACLE Racing down towards the pin.
James Spithill and the crew on the American yacht made the best of the first beat to lead around the top mark by two boat lengths. On the run Ainslie and his crew kept it close and the defining moment of this race came at the leeward gate when BMW ORACLE Racing chose to round the starboard mark (looking downwind) while TEAMORIGIN rounded the opposite mark.
As BMW ORACLE RACING tactician, John Kostecki explained: 'Going into the bottom gate we liked the right gate looking downwind, but in fact it was a lot more even than it looked. We got that wrong. The left gate ended up being favoured and there was a 10 degree wind shift as well - and they instantly had the jump on us. It was our fault for choosing that.'
By the second weather mark rounding it was TEAMORIGIN who led around with a four boat length advantage which they maintained to the finish where they arrived 7 seconds ahead.
In the second race it was game over for the American team far sooner. After holding a small advantage going for the start line, BMW ORACLE Racing was deemed over early and after taking a while to return and start correctly they set out up the first beat with a deficit of more than 300m on TEAMORIGIN. In fact with the wind building into the early 20s, gusting up to 25 knots and with tide going on to the ebb (against the wind) the race officials chose to shorten course at the leeward gate and send the boats home to Cowes. This confirmed the win for TEAMORIGIN and a 2-0 lead at the end of Day One of the 1851 Cup regatta.
Ben Ainslie talked through the start of this race: 'We had about 22 knots and both boats ended up dialled up. James [Spithill] did a nice job with the fake dial [up] and came back round at us and we ended up back head to wind. We ended up going backwards at about 3-4 knots and both teams did a good job handling that. There was a reasonable starboard end bias, and both teams were fighting for it quite hard.
We pushed at the end and had room to get in between James and the start boat and they were trying to squeeze up and make life hard for us, but it got them to the line a bit too early. It is really hard judging the current out there. We are not exactly used to it with these boats.'
His tactician Iain Percy reckoned that BMW ORACLE Racing was as much as 5-10 seconds early and with the tide pushing them towards the line, this was accentuated further.
In the lively conditions, exaggerated by the sea state being further whipped up by the large and enthusiastic spectator fleet, so both boats suffered gear failure. BMW ORACLE Racing broken battens in their mainsail and then had issues with their headboard in race two, while on the TEAMORIGIN boat their pit winch broke down, forcing them to make a conventional (rather than a faster string line) spinnaker drop at the leeward mark in race one. 'The guys did a really good job to recover from that. It was definitely a team work day today,' said skipper Ben Ainslie.
Racing on the busy Solent in the middle of Cowes Week and a shipping channel passing through the middle of the race course brought some fresh challenges compared to what these crews are typically used to. As BMW ORACLE Racing’s Murray Jones noted: 'I quite enjoyed it out there today. It adds a dimension to the racing we are used to and all the different classes of yachts in the Solent during Cowes Week and ships, makes it interesting. You have to stay awake. It is a great change.'
Iain Percy, TEAMORIGIN tactician agreed: 'One of the challenges is that you keep on thinking about the racing and not about ships and all the rest of it, especially on a day like today. Those boats have a lot of distractions anyway in 25 knots, everyone is full-on boat handling. We have to steal five seconds every now and then to think about what is going on.'
Tomorrow three further windward-leewards are scheduled starting no earlier than 15:30 BST. Conditions are forecast to be equally as boisterous as they were today with the passage of a cold front expected to pass over Cowes early afternoon.