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Prada Cup racing, PATRIOT's near-sinking, Vendee Globe update

by David Schmidt 19 Jan 08:00 PST January 19, 2021
Emirates Team New Zealand help with the recovery of Patriot © COR36 / Studio Borlenghi

It seemed as though just a few weeks ago, most of the sailing community was beginning to sing dirges for Sir Ben Ainslie and INEOS Team UK. The team ended up posting an unenviable score of 0-6 during the America's Cup World Series (December 16-19), which was contested on the waters off of Auckland, New Zealand, and which represented the first time that AC75 foiling monohulls raced ahead of the 36th America's Cup (March 6-21).

To be fair, the ACWS was more exhibition than command performance, but INEOS Team UK was so far off the pace in terms of maneuvers that the Prada Cup (January 15-February 22) challenger series looked as if it would be a two-boat affair between American Magic and Luna Rossa. But now, just four weeks later, the situation is entirely different, as INEOS Team UK emerged from the first two round robins of the Prada Cup undefeated.

Sadly for North American interests, the same could not be said of the score posted by the New York Yacht Club's American Magic, which finished these same first two round robins with a score of 0-4. Worse still, the team came precariously close to sinking PATRIOT, their second-generation AC75, after a gate rounding went pear-shaped and the team suffered the most dramatic AC75 capsize that's unfurled to date.

But first, the Brits.

Sir Ben was one of the driving forces aboard Oracle Team USA's come-from-behind win during the 34th America's Cup (2013) on the waters off of San Francisco, California. The team was deep into the red on the scoreboard, but the afterguard, led by Jimmy Spithill (who is now one of Luna Rossa's two helmsmen) and accompanied by Ainslie, who replaced John Kostecki as the team's tactician, refused to give up. Impressively, the team staged an all-out juggernaut and ended up beating Emirates Team New Zealand in one of the biggest upsets in Cup history.

Clearly, after the 2020 ACWS, Ainslie has lost none of his fight.

Irrespective of what team you're rooting for in the Prada Cup and in AC36, there's no question that the level of competition only increases with stronger challengers, and after this past weekend, INEOS Team UK went from a fading footnote to one of the biggest contenders to square off against the defender, Emirates Team New Zealand, when AC36's starting guns begin to sound on March 6.

INEOS Team UK's first victim was American Magic, whom they beat by 1 minute and 20 seconds on January 15. Next, it was Luna Rossa's turn in the barrel, and they succumbed to the same scoreboard fate, this time by a finishing line delta of 28 seconds.

Next up the Italians beat the Americans in a light air affair on January 16 that saw the RC shorten course to try and match conditions. Luna Rossa finished the race within the allotted 45-minute time window, but American Magic struggled to get up onto her foils and could not complete the course in time, yielding the win to the Italians.

INEOS Team UK squared off against American Magic for the second race of the day on January 16, which was also the start of the Prada Cup's second round robin. This race was also patchy from a breeze perspective, and again the Americans struggled to foil. The RC again shortened the course, but this didn't help American Magic, who again posted a DNF and handed another win to Sir Ben and the boys.

But it was Sunday, January 17, that will live on in AC36 infamy.

The first race saw INEOS Team UK battle Luna Rossa, however this contest was cancelled due to shifty winds that didn't allow for fair racing.

Then it was Luna Rossa against American Magic.

The Americans were in a commanding position entering the final gate rounding, when the wheels came off the bus. PATRIOT came screaming into the gate and was deep into their maneuver when a gust hit at the wrong time.

"We struggled through that maneuver because we got a puff at about the same time we were bearing off, and we were accelerating," said skipper Terry Hutchinson in an official team release. "In that exact moment, the runner was a little bit fetched up on the mainsail, the sails were eased and the boat was accelerating but we were still building up to our top speed."

PATRIOT rounded the mark, but her flight didn't look stable. Things got worse: Her bow skyrocketed, pulling her leeward foil from the brine, and the mighty AC75 came plummeting back down, hard.

A full capsize followed, but the situation continued to get worse.

"You look at the boat speed when the boat was accelerating through the trajectory of the turn, and we were going 47 knots or something," continued Hutchinson. "There's transverse structure inside the boat and then there's a longitudinal structure. And when you look at the boat in slow motion, it popped quite a wheelie. The leeward foil came out of the water and we got a reasonable amount of bow-out altitude up. And when the boat slammed down, it's fine if it slams flat on its keel. But when you land on the side, on the flat panel, basically the structure inside the yacht just guillotined the panel and out it came."

PATRIOT, lying limp in the water, began taking on a significant volume of brine.

"At the time, it felt like the boat was going to sink," continued Hutch. "We were doing everything we possibly could to prevent that from happening. Everybody around us, from the other teams to the local authorities helped us get the pumps in the boat, and we ended up with 16 pumps. We had a jib wrapped around the hole. And then the fire and rescue [units] deployed what I would categorize as two 'airplane-style' life rafts that we wrapped underneath the bow of the boat and inflated. That really that stopped the bleeding, from that moment on."

PATRIOT was ultimately saved, thanks to help from all corners of the racecourse. Most importantly, none of the sailors were hurt, but the boat's electronics are fried, there's a gaping hole in her hull, and there's likely other downstream damage that will need to be addressed before the team can continue their campaign.

"We have great support from the Auckland maritime and boat building community to help us," said Hutch. "We've had great support from all the teams. Everybody has offered up their services to get PATRIOT back on the water. As competitors, we sit here a majority of the time and we argue with each other about things. But at the end of the day, you couldn't come across more sportsmanship or more generous teams that we have around us. With all the sincerity in the world, they've extended pretty much all of their facilities to us to use to rebuild PATRIOT."

The next Prada Cup racing is scheduled to take place on Friday, January 22, however, as of this writing, it's unclear if the Americans will be ready to compete in the third round robin.

Sail-World extends our best wishes to American Magic, and we sincerely hope that they are able to compete again as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, in Vendee Globe news, skipper Charlie Dalin, sailing aboard Apivia, has again taken the pole position, and, as of this writing, has just 2,839 nautical miles separating his bow from winning this nail-biting contest.

That said, Dalin is facing plenty of pressure from behind, as the next four boats are all within 125 nautical miles of his position. Specifically, Dalin is likely especially concerned with skipper Louis Burton, sailing aboard Bureau Vallée 2, as Burton has been logging faster boatspeeds (again, as of this writing) than Apivia.

Stay tuned for the latest Vendee Globe news, as it unfurls.

Finally, last weekend also saw the first racing of the six-event 2021 West Marine US Open Sailing Series on the waters off of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Racing is scheduled to continue in this brand-new Olympic class series from January 21-24 on the waters off of Miami.

May the four winds blow you safely home,

David Schmidt North American Editor

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