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America's Cup Rialto: Dec 18 - Matchracing Meisterclass

by Richard Gladwell, 18 Dec 2020 03:43 PST 18 December 2020
Te Rehutai - Emirates Team New Zealand - America's Cup World Series - Day 2 - Waitemata Harbour - December 18, 2020 - 36th Americas Cup presented by Prada © Richard Gladwell /

Few would have predicted when the new AC75 Class concept was announced just over three years ago that, as well as being the fastest of the monohull classes, it would also be a top matchracer.

Just two days into the America's Cup World Series presented by Prada, match racing strategies not seen since the demise of the IACC class, came into play on the Waitemata Harbour - and having a significant impact on the shape and outcome of the racing.

The AC72 wing sailed foiling catamarans used in the 2013 America's Cup in San Francisco, took the Cup to a new level - sailing up to 30kts faster than the 25tonne displacement keelboats they replaced.

The move to the AC50 wingsailed one design foiling catamaran re-introduced some of the match racing for which the traditionalists had yearned, while retaining the speed of the longer and more powerful AC72.

Today we saw the cut and thrust of traditional monohull matchracing combined with the scintilating speed of the AC75 which in just the first two days of TV-revealed speeds have hit upwind speeds of 35kts plus, and downwind close to 50kts.

Each race today - sailed in a 10-15kt NE breeze - had an element of match racing in the start, and often in the course of the race when the boats were close enough to engage.

Boldest move of the day came from INEOS Team UK's Ben Ainslie in the last race of the day against Emirates Team New Zealand, when the Kiwis came off the foils at just the wrong moment, and Ainslie - a former World Match racing champion swung the helm and spun inside the deflated Kiwis, before taking off for what most would have thought was an uncatchable 400 metre lead.

Unfortunately for Ainslie he was up against superboat, and his steed is dependent on several yet to be installed upgrades if it is to be fully competitive with the other two Challengers. Otherwise the Brits will be bidding "haere ra" [farewell] to Auckland in early February.

Ainslie claimed at the later media conference that his was a practiced move and one that took a completely co-ordinated effort from the sailing team. On reflection, in the AC75's, it had to be that way.

"The start box was much tighter today, with the location of the course," he told the later media conference. "Our strategy was to do a real tight gybe to get back up to the start-line. A lot has to come together with that manoevre - the sail trim, the guys helping fly the boat and myself on the wheel, plus Giles [Scott] as tactician. The guys pulled it off and got us through."

Significantly of the four helmsmen sailing in the America's Cup World Series, only Emirates Team New Zealand's Peter Burling has not helmed an IACC boat at America's Cup level of matchracing. Dean Barker, Jimmy Spithill and Ainslie (who was backup and training helm for ETNZ back in the 2007 America's Cup campaign), all raced as skippers in an America's Cup campaign/regatta.

While Burling may be in a league of his own in the way he can spin an AC75 like the Olympic 49er, he is being caught occasionally on some match racing thinking which the older hands in the fleet can bring into play. Today's start-line incident with Ainslie looked to be very much in that category, where the four time Olympic Gold Medalist saw a gap open and knew, and had practiced the response, and had the courage to apply the high risk move. If the Brits had a repeat of the same foil arm gremlins as yesterday, mid maneuver then a capsize would probably be the outcome.

Ainslie's reward for the courageous, opportunistic move was a massive jump off the start line and he was well up the first leg before the kiwis recovered and began a 400metre chase down, reminiscent to Oracle's on the first leg of the 2010 America's Cup.

The occasion was one of those moments of truth for superboat and its super skipper - would we see the handbrake come off and the Brits get chased down? Surprisingly the answer was "yes" - about halfway down the second of six legs. There was plenty of runway left, but it was surplus to requirements for the flying Burling. Whether the kiwis could have done the same to American Magic, the leading Challenger, is another question, which probably won't be answered in the next two days of the World Series.

However America's Cup racing is a game of surprises, particularly in the AC75 - and we may not find out the answer until the Match starting on March 6.

Of course the risk for the Kiwis is that they have only two days of competition left before they leave the Challengers to the Prada Cup, or Challenger Selection Series.

At the post match media conference Kiwi nemesis, Jimmy Spithill was dismissive of the ability to defuse superboat's speed advantage by outwitting the Kiwis with slick match racing strategies. "You need boatspeed" was his quick response, accompanied by a whimsical grin. "You can't match race a fast boat against a slow boat and expect to win. There's only so much you can do," he added.

He then dropped back onto the familar Bermuda media conference lines from the 2017 Cup saying there was plenty of speed left on the table for all Challengers, as they try and catch with their Generation 2 AC75's what looks to be a Generation 3 design over in Camp Kiwi.

"But we have the advantage of the Prada Cup, that they don't get. You always get pushed harder when racing anther boat, as opposed to being out testing and training on your own. That's what we have going for us, and the three of us are going to have to do everything we can to get there."

Earlier Spithill made it very clear that he felt the Kiwis had a speed advantage over the other three.

However for Burling and friends the reality of just how much can be worked out of AC75 racing by shrewd and daring match racing tactics, must have come as a bit of a wakeup call, with just two days left in the AC World Series.

Picking up a 400 metre jump at the start of a race, through a slick maneuver takes an awful amount of time to offset through the design computer and performance simulator - even if there is the time left to make such changes.

And as Spithill later noted in an interview with top commentator and analyst, Shirley Robertson, the match racing skills that are required now, cannot be picked up through opposed competition up against a team chase boat, or brainstorming in a simulator. The whole of the crew needs to be involved - as Ainslie so ably demonstrated, in their Race 4 startline move on Day 2.

The other issue unique to the AC75 class is that a start line penalty can have unintended consequences, if in dropping back the required 50 metres, the penalized competitor comes off their foils - and although the penalty may be complete, they are far from back to the speed of their opponent. We saw this very situation in one of the Practice Races in lighter winds, after INEOS Team UK was penalised in the pre-start, came off their foils, served their time, and then could but watch American Magic treble or quadruple the distance of the penalty, for a race winning margin, as Ainslie struggled to gain traction.

With just two days left in the America's Cup World Series - has the Kiwis Achille's Heel been found?

Can they come up with a plan to lift their match racing game - unlikely? Can the Challengers lift theirs - likely. Or can the Kiwis stay clear, avoid engagement and then light their afterburner after a penalty-free start?

It is going to be a fascinating, and intriguing few weeks until March 6.

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