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Prada America's Cup World Series debriefing, Vendee Globe updates and a farewell to 2020

by David Schmidt 22 Dec 2020 08:00 PST 22 December 2020
ETNZ and American Magic at the end of Leg 5, Match 4 - America's Cup World Series - Day 1 - Waitemata Harbour - December 17, 2020 - 36th Americas Cup presented by Prada © Richard Gladwell /

While the northern hemisphere just passed through its winter solstice and its shortest day of the year, fortunes are decidedly brighter in the southern hemisphere, specifically in the island nation of New Zealand. Last week, the world caught its first glimpse of AC75 racing during the Prada America's Cup World Series Auckland (December 16-19), when the four teams that will be contesting the 36th America's Cup—American Magic, Emirates Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, and Ineos Team UK—locked their match-racing horns for the first time on the waters off of Auckland.

The AC75 is a decidedly weird-looking boat, but there's no question that it is fast. Case-in-point: ETNZ posted a top speed of 49.1 knots in winds that were reportedly between 15 and 19 knots on the first day of ACWS racing. Wild stuff, especially given that the prestart maneuvers proved to be way more engaging than I had been expecting from boats that fly with a ballasted foil arm that's canted to windward.

While the pre-start maneuvers look fairly terrifying— given the closing speeds and vessel displacement numbers involved—to an armchair foiler like myself, an onboard source who shall not be mentioned commented that this is the most interesting and enjoyable part of the experience as the boats themselves are so solid, and the workload of grinding so intense, that straight-line sailing doesn't necessarily feel like "sailing" in any normal definition of the word.

Watching the boats race doesn't resemble sailing in any normal fashion, either. While there are a lot of things that impressed me about the racing, there's no question that AC75s require extremely tight crew work to push the boat through tacks and gybes without coming off the foils.

Sadly, for Ineos Team UK, it looks like that squad in particular needs to focus a lot of time and effort on staying aloft through their maneuvers. The team ended the Prada ACWS Auckland with an unenviable score of 0-6, which cannot be a fun place to be, both from a sailing and leadership perspective. But, given the impressive brain trust onboard the boat, and given Sir Ben's experience helping to lead Oracle Team USA's juggernaut comeback to win the 34th America's Cup, there's plenty of reason to hope that the team will find its legs before the Prada Cup, which will determine AC36's challenger, begins on January 15, 2021.

Not surprisingly, ETNZ proved the boat to beat in the Prada ACWS's final scoreboard (5-1). But what I found interesting was how helmsman Peter Burling—himself a gold (2016 Rio Olympics) and silver (2012 London Olympics) medalist in the ultra-competitive 49er class—wasn't the dominant player in the prestart maneuvers. While it's possible that Burling was sandbagging a bit, odds are good that the team will need to tighten up this aspect of their game before the 36th America's Cup begins on March 6.

Both American Magic (the one team to beat ETNZ in the ACWS; they finished with a score of 4-2) and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (3-3) looked smooth on their maneuvers, although their tactics are quite different. Dean Barker, who is helming for American Magic, crosses behind the boom during maneuvers, while the Italian-flagged team enlisted two top-shelf drivers—Jimmy Spithill (another veteran of Oracle's 2013 comeback) and Francesco Bruni—so that no one needed to change boards.

It will be very interesting to see if other teams adopt dual drivers, and if Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli sticks with their current tactics as the racing progresses into the Prada Cup.

While I'll admit to being fairly gob smacked by the actual racing, another piece of the scene was equally impressive to my American eyes in December of 2020, namely the footage of fans watching the action from a grassy knoll ashore. This simple act would normally not be worth any editorial ink, of course, but what was impressive was the fact that these fans didn't need to bother with masks or social distancing as the Kiwi government has done a bang-on job of stopping community spread of the wretched coronavirus.

I'll admit that it was hard to see this and not ponder how the outcome of the virus could have been much different in North America if things had been handled differently, and if mask wearing had been an accepted social norm from the get-go in the USA.

To say I'm jealous of these fans' simple ability to sit on a hillside with friends and family and watch world-class sailboat racing is a massive understatement. Hopefully 2021 will bring fairer winds to the world as the various vaccines are deployed.

Sadly, the coronavirus has also tested Australia hard in the last week. The country did an impressive job of containing the virus, but a recent (and hopefully small-scale) outbreak in Sydney forced the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia to cancel the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race for the first time in the race's proud history.

Granted, the race's cancellation falls decidedly into the category of first-world problems, there's no escaping the fact that countless hours of preparation, planning, training, and work went into each boat and team that was planning on being on the race's Boxing Day (December 26) starting line.

While we at Sail-World obviously understand and respect the CYCA's decision to cancel the race and fully believe that preventing community spread of the virus is far more important than hosting a sailboat race, we also understand how much of a disappointment this call was to the sailing community.

Hopefully 2021 will prove kinder to competitive sailing than 2020.

While this will be an unusual holiday season at my house, given that there will be no need to constantly update the Sydney Hobart webpage and the fleet's tracker information, I (and other holiday scrooges) can take solace in the ongoing Vendee Globe.

As of this writing, skipper Yannick Bestaven, sailing aboard Maitre Coq IV, was in the pole position, followed by Charlie Dalin, sailing aboard Apivia, and Thomas Ruyant, sailing aboard LinkedOut. Impressively, and after having sailing roughly half of the course, these three boats are all within 165 nautical miles of each other.

But, with more than 10,000 nautical miles to go before the finishing guns sound—not to mention the sometimes not-so-simple act of rounding Cape Horn—there's still plenty of time and racetrack left to see position changes.

Fortunately, there's a lot less time and racetrack left in 2020, which is a year that I think we can all agree just plain sucked. As the holidays draw near, and as 2021 looms large, this is a good time to wish the entire Sail-World readership community a happy and healthy holiday season, and a successful 2021.

With a pinch of luck, plenty of vaccine and a population willing to roll up their sleeves and accept the jabs, it's entirely possible that Europe and North America can experience the kind of normalcy that America's Cup fans in New Zealand enjoyed last week. And while the Cup racing itself is impressive, to me at least, a return to normalcy would be the most impressive feat that humankind could pull off in 2021.

May it be so!

And, should you need an early stocking-stuffer gift, just remember that there will be more daylight tomorrow than there was today. Granted, the day-to-day movement is small, but at least the trend is now moving in the right direction.

May the four winds blow you safely home.

David Schmidt North American Editor

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