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PRADA Cup Semi-Final Day 1: PATRIOT returns to the race course but suffers two losses

by New York Yacht Club American Magic 29 Jan 01:44 PST 29 January 2021
PRADA Cup Semi-Final Day 1 - Big breeze for American Magic and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, with gusts up around 24 knots © Sailing Energy / American Magic

New York Yacht Club American Magic, the U.S. Challenger for the America's Cup, took two losses against Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli of Italy on the first day of racing at the Prada Cup Semifinals.

Eleven days after suffering significant damage and nearly sinking during a Round Robins race against the Italians, American Magic succeeded in patching the hull of its AC75 racing yacht and restoring its many systems to full functionality. The mere presence of the American AC75, PATRIOT, on the starting line in Auckland's Waitemata Harbor was a testament to the tireless efforts of the team since the near-sinking occurred on January 17.

While the two opening losses in the best-of-seven semifinal series was not the type of return to action the U.S. Challenger had hoped for, American Magic will have an opportunity to even the score on Saturday, January 30. Two more races are scheduled for Day 2.

"Tomorrow we [will] come back out swinging," said Terry Hutchinson, Skipper and Executive Director of American Magic. "That's all you can really do. We just have to sail better."

Race 1: Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (starboard entry) def. PATRIOT by 2:43

Both boats entered the starting box late, and with the breeze gusting over 20 knots. There was no initial engagement, but both teams loosely shadowed each other towards the right side of the box, with American Magic leading Luna Rossa towards the boundary.

With just under a minute until the start, The Italian team tacked inside of PATRIOT as she turned back towards the line. Both boats then headed, on starboard, back left. Luna Rossa seized an opportunity to use their leeward position to force PATRIOT up and off her foils. The Italians also went into displacement mode, but maintained a higher speed, enjoyed better flow across their foils, and held a controlling position closer to the line.

Luna Rossa waited until American Magic slowed nearly to a stop, and then pulled the trigger, getting their grey-hulled AC75 back up to full speed. The Americans followed the Italians as they charged towards the line, but PATRIOT had to accelerate from a slower speed. This pre-start maneuvering resulted in a 10-second advantage off the line for Luna Rossa, which translated to around 200 meters once the two boats settled into their respective upwind grooves.

"If you spot a team as good as them the distance that we did off the line, you'd expect them to beat you," said Hutchinson. "So we have to get away even and get PATRIOT into a spot where she can do what she was designed to do."

The lead stayed fairly steady for the first lap. American Magic looked quick at times, but the Italian team defended well and prevented any passing lanes from forming. The time gap at the first mark was 18 seconds, then 22 at the second, despite American Magic hitting 50.5 knots shortly after rounding the windward mark. Luna Rossa added ten seconds to its lead on the second of four downwind legs, and then nearly doubled the advantage on third upwind leg, turning downwind with a lead of just shy of a minute.

Any hopes of a comeback by the American team faded the third time through the windward gate. PATRIOT hit 53.3 knots shortly after rounding the mark, but the rudder lost its grip on the water and the boat crashed heavily into displacement mode. With the boundary looming, and the wind still gusting into the mid-20s, American Magic was forced to turn upwind, execute a downspeed tack, turned back downwind, and also clear a boundary penalty.

Luna Rossa's lead stretched to 2:25 at the final leeward gate and then 2:43 at the finish, giving the Italian team the win.

"It was a tough day to race these boats consistently well," said Hutchinson. "You saw breeze from 240 to 190 around North Head and wind shifts evaporate from 21 knots down to eight. And we had a couple of control issues that we'll need to work through and sort out."

Race 2: Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (port entry) def. PATRIOT by 3:07

The second pre-start also resulted in a disadvantaged starting position for American Magic. PATRIOT dived low in the box, while Luna Rossa went high and to the right before gybing back and aiming straight at the U.S. boat. The AC75s converged with about 45 seconds to go, and PATRIOT, on port tack, was forced farther to the right of the line.

After pushing American Magic farther to the right edge of the box, Luna Rossa immediately turned up towards the line and began accelerating for her start. PATRIOT tacked over quickly, but the Italians were able to once again lead PATRIOT across the line. The advantage was just a few seconds, but it gave the Italian team the freedom to once again sail the boat where they wished. The lead grew to 17 seconds as both boats turned around the lefthand top gate mark and blazed down the first run.

Luna Rossa padded its lead by a handful of seconds down leg two, but a mistake by the Italians allowed American Magic to close the gap. While rounding the leeward gate on just her leeward foil, the foil itself breached the surface and the Italian yacht crashed down twice in quick succession. One bad maneuver sliced the lead to less than 200 meters, and the race was back on.

Nevertheless, that was as close as American Magic would get in the second race. The Italian team was largely error-free the rest of the way, and steadily increased their advantage. American Magic struggled during multiple windward mark bear-aways, losing the rudder and splashing down off her foils.

Hutchinson explained that when the rudder loses touch, the focus immediately turns to safety and damage prevention. "When it's going at that speed, you're managing the angle, and you're managing the load on the boat. If you're going to go one way or the other, it's better to set the boat down in the water."

These incidents were impactful on the final result, with Luna Rossa stretching out to a lead of greater than 1,000 meters and winning the race by 3:07. With a second win, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli took a 2-0 advantage over New York Yacht Club American Magic in the best-of-seven series.

"To race at a high level, you have to treat each day as the same," said Hutchinson. "Today, you'd have to say that we need to understand the mistakes that we made and not make them twice. I think PATRIOT's a good boat all the way through the [wind] range, so you don't have to deviate too much [or] go and try to change a lot of things. Our approach and mentality is just to stay consistent, stay true to the process that we have racing the boat and allow that to happen."

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