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America's Cup Rialto: December 11 - Kiwis race alone on Practice Day 3

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World NZ 10 Dec 2020 22:52 PST 11 December 2020
Te Rehutai, Emirates Team New Zealand - December 11, 2020, - Waitemata Harbour - America's Cup 36 © Richard Gladwell /

Emirates Team New Zealand was the only one of four America's Cup teams to appear for the third day of Practice Racing ahead of the start of the America's Cup World Series/Xmas Cup.

Scheduled as the first of three Practice Race days, formal courses were set, along with start and finish lines in the configuration to be used for the America's Cup World Series which starts next Thursday.

Today's effort was a marked contrast to the "free-sailing" of the first two of five Practice days, with the Kiwis putting on their game face, as they practised starts, and one and two-lap courses against a chase boat. While that may seem to be akin to kissing your sister, the chase boat was working as a competitor from a positioning perspective.

Of course, the use of a chase boat in this way enables the races to be quickly rolled through, as there is no waiting around for a second yacht to get ready/repair break downs.

Sailing conditions were ideal for racing behind Browns Island Motukorea in the western end of Tamaki Strait. Racing was rescheduled for the morning getting away around 1100hrs in a 15-20kt SSW breeze, and smooth seas ahead of the tide change. Even the sun made an appearance.

The reasons for the non-appearance of the three Challenger teams was unclear. It would be surprising if it were boat damage - given the performance of shore support teams in the past to turn around catastrophic damage situations. More likely is their reluctance to give the current America's Cup champions more than a minimum of contested practice. All Challengers have to "enter and participate" in the America's Cup World Series if they are to compete in the challenger selection series or Prada Cup.

Quite what "participate" means in this context remains to be seen - if just crossing the start line in one race is sufficient, or if competitive participation is required in each race of the series. Clearly, "participation" doesn't include participation in the Practice Racing - even though this is a scheduled part of the regatta.

While the practice racing can be considered to be a work-out for the competitors, it is also a work-out for the race management team and to identify any gremlins ahead of the main event.

The first deadline comes tomorrow with the Declaration Day for the configuration that each team will race their yachts in the ACWS and Xmas Cups. Once declared, the yachts cannot alter their selection of measured items for their race boat for the ACWS and Xmas Cup.

The defending America's Cup champion turned in an impressive display, with a slick training session in marked contrast to the previous two practice days.

Start lines were hit close to time, as Te Rehutai's crew and technology still try perfect synchronization for time on distance starts in the AC75. It seems from what has been seen over the past three days that most will try for a slingshot start, with it being more important to hit the line at full speed and a fraction late, than overcooking the start by arriving too early or being forced to slow to avoid a recall.

Speed looked very good, and we checked ETNZ sailing at over 36kts to windward, using a transit from the photo boat. Trying to catch the flying AC75 is impossible without a four-engine rig in the chase boat.

The Kiwi's manoeuvres looked sharp, and it is hard to see how the Italians can claim to have an advantage in this regard.

The Challengers seem to have been keen to play mind games with the Defender in the time-honoured style of the America's Cup. The simple fact is that one of them will be excused from further participation in the America's Cup come early February, with a second leaving three weeks later.

While the strategy games against the defender are rather hackneyed, the permutations on the challenger side of the table are less obvious.

Once the Round Robin phase of the Prada Cup is completed the top challenger will go directly to the final - leaving the other two boats to repechage in the so-called Semi-Final. In that series, the two challengers sail a further seven races over five days, while the first finalist sits alone, without competition.

Is it an advantage not to win the Round Robin phase, sail the Semi-Finals and then go into the Finals with the additional racing experience - in a class which has only raced a few weeks of its existence?

In media conferences in Bermuda, during the Qualifying Rounds of the Challenger Selection Series, the comment was oft-made at Media Conferences by the skippers that there was "plenty of speed on the table". In hindsight that may have been true in regards to some small incremental changes that could be made to what was a one-design class. However, the biggest factor in the America's Cup win by the Challenger was the hard competition in the Challenger Final. From memory, Artemis Racing led around more marks than the New Zealanders - except the Kiwi's mark wins were in the latter stages of the race - even if one of those was by a margin of just one second.

It will only be with the benefit of hindsight whether hours spent in the boat-shed, at this stage, pay a higher dividend than hours of contested race practice on the water.

At the stage, the Challengers' collective game plan is a little difficult to comprehend, and overthinking the basics is easily done.

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