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America's Cup Rialto: January 6 - Brits impressive in the breeze. Near-miss at 80kts

by Richard Gladwell, Sail-World NZ 6 Jan 03:39 PST 7 January 2021
INEOS Team UK and American Magic - Waitemata Harbour - January 6, 2020 - 36th America's Cup © Richard Gladwell / Sail-World.com

INEOS Team UK turned in an impressive performance on Course C today in a spanking 19-21kt SSW breeze.

The jury is still out in the Brits' light airs performance. But if the breeze comes in for the Prada Cup, which gets underway in just over a week, the Challenger Selection Series will definitely be a three way contest.

A lot of commentary weight has been put on stating the obvious from the America's Cup World Series, namely the Brits propensity to break down at key moments, and their stickiness in the light.

On the first count, the Brits are not alone as they still work the bugs out of their two-month old AC75. On the light air performance, skipper Ben Ainslie copped the media flak - and unusual turn of events for the British sporting superstar.

Ben Ainslie may be outstanding at many things, but he is in the hands of the aero and hydrodynamic boffins that he has hired on the INEOS team, plus their networks into the F1 racing team, part owned by INEOS team backer, Jim Ratcliffe.

Those who have had the privilege of seeing INEOS Team UK skipper Ben Ainslie perform in the white heat of an Olympic Regatta know that he is not a flashy sailor, but he is determined and relentless. Always near the front of the fleet he has the ability to make his opponents crack under pressure - and then he makes his move.

We have not really seen those qualities displayed in Auckland, so far in the build up to this unusual America's Cup. Ainslie hasn't been in a position to be able to put his opponents under pressure - but we had plenty of evidence of that for a couple of hours of "racing" today - and saw the results, which will give him confidence in his team, Britannia and their abilities.

During the latest Shirley Robertson podcast, Ainslie rated America's Magic the best of the the challengers in a strong breeze, and the closest to Emirates Team NZ in those conditions. On that basis INEOS Team UK should take a lot of out today's performance.

The Brits looked to have their act together, and you could sense Ainslie pushing Britannia, the AC75, in the same way that he pushed Rita, his Finn singlehander to four Gold Medals in successive Olympics, and a Silver, in the Laser class in his first in Savannah in 1996. He is the most successful Olympic sailor of all time. From the time he stepped aboard Oracle Team USA replacing tactician John Kostecki, in the 2013 America's Cup, the performance improvement was obvious, and the USA Defender went on to retain the America's Cup by 11 wins to the the Kiwi's 8.

All four America's Cup teams were on the water today, in conditions that were straight from Paradise. A fresh steady breeze from the SSW, that was summer-warmed despite its direction. Blue skies and bright sunshine completed the perfect picture.

INEOS Team UK laid a couple of marks for some windward leeward training on Course C - at the entrance to the Waitemata Harbour. As we have seen on a few occasions, unaccompanied training seems to be an open invitation to gate-crashers - in this case it was American Magic joining the Brits' party.

Our expectation was that the US entry which finished the America's Cup World Series as the top Challenger, would show the Brits a clean pair of heels. However that was not the case, and INEOS seemed to have the measure of New York Yacht Club's challenger.

Neither appeared to be sandbagging - and there would be no reason to do so, with the Challenger Series just nine days away - and with the configuration declaration to be made two days beforehand. This was really an opportunity for both teams to sort out sails - mainsails and jibs, and check-in their boatspeed after mods.

Both teams tried several jibs, with varying luff lengths. American Magic seemed to settle on a very short hoist jib that seems to be their stock choice for a fresher breeze. The Brits still used a J2, but more conventional in profile.

The "races" consisted of a couple of double windward leewards, with the teams skirting the rules prohibiting training in a coordinated manner, with the US boat following the Brits off the start line, and only one boat rounding the marks at the top and bottom of the course.

Even so there was plenty of cross tacking - and had American Magic any sort of speed or VMG (Velocity Made Good) advantage, then it would have showed.

Ainslie also looked to have good balance in the boat - enabling Britannia to be driven hard without being on the edge of control. There also looked to be a new confidence in the crew, and we didn't notice any handling errors by the Brits during the couple of hours "racing".

In fact it was American Magic who came close to a capsize when both teams were pushing hard to make the leeward mark, and both would have been sailing at 40kts plus in the conditions. Dean Barker realised just before a gybe that they were getting too close for comfort, and prudently pulled out, causing Patriot to heel quite alarmingly to windward as Ainslie raced across their bows. This was the first time that we've seen one of the fabled 80kt closing speed intersections - with one team forced to abort and take avoiding action.

Following the near miss, the US Challenger headed off down the Rangitoto Channel to train alone, and later hoisted an old cut down mainsail

Once again the AC75 proved the soundness of its design, and while Patriot appeared to get its windward gunnel immersed, it seemed to self recover - and came upright, waiting for the crew to gather their wits.

Over the contested session INEOS was impressive, and given a boat that is at least the equal of the other Challengers, Ainslie is more than capable driving hard, mixing it with the other two Challengers and coming out on top in these conditions.

There is no indication as to what INEOS has done regarding their light weather performance, however they seem to have settled on the unusual W-shaped wings - and were running with the same wing configuration on both foil arms. That indicates the testing may be over, apart from a light air test which should take place on Thursday.

Other points of interest today included what the various AC75's from under the team Xmas Tree's included a look at the skeg extension fitted to American Magic. It would seem to give a better end plate effect than previously. However the design shape of Patriot is very deceptive to appreciate - an illusion that seems to vary depending on the viewing angle. Coming to a conclusion is even more fraught given that the AC75 is normally sailed quite bow down when sailing close hauled, and is bow up, but heeled to windward when sailing downwind.

The other point of interest was the new crew cowls fitted to Luna Rossa. They certainly clean up the aerodynamics and will shield the crew and instruments from bow and foil spray. When they returned to base very late in the evening, it was surprising to see how deep the crew were standing in the pit area. But that situation is not unique to Luna Rossa. Crew pits are not a place for the short of stature on Emirates Team New Zealand's Te Rehutai either.

Whether INEOS has resolved her light wind issues will be known on Thursday (NZT) when the same conditions which were the Brit's nemesis on the final day of the America's Cup World Series and more apparent in the Xmas Cup, are forecast to return on Thursday.

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