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Gladwell's Line: Will the Lockdown Cup morph into a quick fire five day regatta?

by Richard Gladwell, 1 Mar 16:25 PST 2 March 2021
Emirates Team New Zealand vs Luna Rossa on day 1 of ACWS Auckland © Hamish Hooper / ETNZ

The 36th America's Cup was again put on hold after the New Zealand Prime Minister held a media conference at 9.30pm on Saturday night to announce that Auckland was again being put into another COVID19 triggered Lockdown.

The unexpected announcement by the New Zealand Prime Minister, carried on live on Saturday night TV at 9.00pm, caught the 36th America's Cup in the lockdown spider's web for a second time in just over a fortnight. This time the start of the Match on Saturday March 6th was caught, with various scenarios being touted for a commencement of sailing hostilities.

The temptation is just to insert a new first race start date into the original America's Cup, but that loses five days from the original program, and compresses the end of the regatta into a situation where racing is held every day.

And of course there is the opportunity for one team to try and screw the scrum to gain an advantage. The rejigged series start, to be fair to all, must be the same as those on the original packet - which are the Match Conditions, agreed on February 5, 2020. Part of those conditions, the wind limits, were contentious and were mediated by the Chairman of the Arbitration Panel, David Tillett (AUS).

The situation is not the same as a regular sailing reason/risk for a loss of sailing days caused by too much or two little wind. The reason the regatta can't start on the scheduled time is because of COVID19 - which has twice been ruled on by the America's Cup Arbitration Panel (ACAP) as a Force Majeure situation, and if they believe they are affected by the effect of a Force Majeure situation, either team can make an Application to the Arbitration Panel for resolution.

There is also the secondary issue of repeating the removal, for COVID reasons of stadium courses, as was done in the last two days of the Prada Cup Finals, and instead racing on the one-way tracks of Course Areas A and E. Again this change is also a reaction to Force Majeure and if one team believes they are disadvantaged then they can make an application to ACAP. There was another successful application made to the ACAP on this point when Ports of Auckland attempted to restrict the course areas on which racing could be held in the Prada Cup.

In short, the teams and event organisers need to look very carefully before they leap. A wrong call and the 36th America's Cup will morph into a shadow of a once prestigious regatta compressed into four or five race days, and held on Courses on which there has never been a lead change, aside from when Patriot capsized.

Of course, team and match sponsors suffer significantly reduced exposure from a regatta cut from a minimum of two weekends and eight elapsed days to one day of a weekend and five elapsed days. The contractual and financial implications of the reduced regatta for both teams and the event can only be guessed at.

None of the downside has been triggered by the actions of the teams, but by a COVID infected 21 year old who went walkabout in South Auckland, an action which been headline news since Saturday evening. The 21yr olds family claims misleading communication from Ministry of Health officials, and the issue has become highly politicised.

While most are very unhappy about a further Lockdown, the fourth in 12 months, in the circumstances, there was probably little option, as there was further evidence of community spread of the virus. The health authorities had to contain the damage while the index case was identified in what is known as the Valentine's Day outbreak. Test results are not expected until Wednesday or Thursday.

Many sporting events were cancelled over the weekend, including the long-standing Around the Bays fun run. Holidaymakers queued for over seven hours to pass through the 20 motorway checkpoints set up by Police on the Auckland region's northern and southern borders. While businesses can continue to operate, all businesses involving public contact are closed for seven days. On Monday and Tuesday, a raft of major sports events had venues moved, or postponed/cancelled.

The America's Cup, due to start on March 6 has been caught inside the seven day Alert Level 3 lockdown imposed on the Auckland region. America's Cup Event Ltd, the permitted organiser has said the earliest the Cup can begin is Wednesday March 10th. How the Cup will emerge from the Lockdown is yet to be announced. There is no certainty that Auckland will emerge from the current lockdown in a week. History says that expecting an exit on time from the Valentine's Day lockdown is unlikely.

In the past, Lockdowns in NZ are usually extended or new sub-levels introduced.

The three-day Lockdown imposed during the America's Cup Finals triggered some very emotional statements in the New Zealand and sailing media. The situation was acerbated by the fact that the Final Series had started and Luna Rossa had won four races of the seven required to become the Challenger for the 36th America's Cup. The team had the still vivid nightmare of being eliminated in the Quarter Final Repechage of the 2003 Louis Vuitton Cup after three days were lost due to insufficient wind, and the shortened series was pushed through to comply with the prescribed race days, and Luna Rossa was eliminated 3-2 by One World (USA).

Fast forward 18 years and leading 4-0 in the Challenger Final, the Italians were fearful of history repeating, if the Brits won their next four races and won the Final on a tiebreak.

Under the original America's Cup schedule Monday, March 1 is the date on which the Challenger and Defender have to declare their Yacht Configuration under the Match Conditions for the 2021 America's Cup.

This declaration took place on Monday, by the prescribed deadline of 4.00 pm. They teams needed to declare which version of their hull; foils including arms, wings and flaps; a rudder; and mast tube.

That doesn't mean the team can't alter the declared components - they can - provided they stay within the applicable measurement rules. And of course other components such as sails, rigging systems, onboard systems and software can all be tweaked, changes made, and new sails can be introduced - within the AC75 Class Rule limits on numbers.

But going with the original Declaration date, is the first step down the original America's Cup program now in Lockdown Limbo, despite the teams and Regatta Director not knowing when racing will start, and indeed what the Alert Levels will be. It means that while the teams can train, they can't substitute any of the declared components - like switching in a new mast. What happens in the interval with damaged gear gets interesting, and potentially very acrimonious.

It is known that currently, several professional sports are in suspension, with several in the scheduled competition phase, or about to start. Two professional cricket teams from UK and Australia are playing matches against New Zealand mens and womens national representative sides. Those games have been re-scheduled to Alert Level 2 regions and will play with empty stadiums. All matches are live on national TV, the same as the America's Cup.

The Australian Mens side is reported to have refused to travel in New Zealand due to COVID19, and top players were unwilling to risk six and seven figure contracts with the Indian Premier League, which gets underway after the New Zealand T-20 circuit.

Team NZ focussed on March 10 start

Doubtless, there will be the same vociferous calls about the need to follow rules etc, almost in spite of the NZ COVID19 backdrop.

The problem with that approach is that two race days (Saturday and Sunday - March 6 & 7) are lost, as are two No Race days on March 8 and 9.

The latest weather forecasts indicate that racing would have been possible on Saturday (in a light 10kt NE seabreeze), but strong wind averaging 28kts would have killed racing on Sunday March 7. Without a Lockdown, and if the current forecast is accurate the next race day would have been Wednesday March 10 - on which two races would have been held. It is at the discretion of the Regatta Director if racing is held in Friday March 10 - when one or two races can be sailed to get the Match completed in its second weekend.

In the current Lockdown limbo, the best case is for the first two races would be sailed on Wednesday, March 10 - COVID and weather willing, a loss of five days out of the original race calendar.

Emirates Team New Zealand flight controller, Blair Tuke confirmed in interviews with both TV News shows that the team was resigned to not being able to make gear changes, now the declaration has been made and that the extra five days would be used for crew training only. Tuke indicated they were focused on a start to the Match on Wednesday, March 10.

Thursday, March 11 is another No Race day. The third and fourth races would be staged on Friday, March 12 - being an optional race day usable at the discretion of the Regatta Director, Iain Murray.

Used or not, from that date racing has to be held every day until the regatta is completed.

That gives no opportunity for a team to recover from a breakdown, or capsize, which might have cost a race or two under the original Match Conditions, but given adequate time for repairs/rectification on a No Race day. Nominally the America's Cup has to be complete by March 15.

Even racing two races on Friday 12, a finish on March 15 might at best the America's Cup decided after Race 7 on March 15 - meaning that a team winning the Cup would have a score of 7-0 or if the second race were sailed on March 15 then 7-1 would be the winning score.

But if one competitor wins two races, and the other has won six of the eight races remaining in the original 13 race schedule, then the Cup goes into extra time and racing can be held every day until March 21 to get a winner.

Zero tolerance

The Cup teams, fans and others need to accept that approach and work within it, without working the edges of the rules. It just looks slippery, and puts the Cup above other sports which are complying with the letter and intent of restrictions.

The best option would seem to delay the start of the Match on a rolling week basis, and start as originally intended on the Saturday following the lowering of Alert Levels to Level 2 and with Level 1 in sight, and stay to the original schedule in terms of the spacing of race dates, reserve days and for teams to have the certainty of no-race days.

The point that must never be overlooked is that this is the America's Cup, and it should be treated with the respect the event deserves.

That does not include forcing the regatta through a race schedule which has not been altered for reasons of weather or the usual sailing causes.

Previously there have been two COVID-19 and ACWS related cases put in front of the America's Cup Arbitration Panel. In both instances, the ACAP decided that COVID-19 was a Force Majeure event and made a decision based on the situation and evidence presented.

The same process should be instituted in this case, and ACAP given some ongoing jurisdiction in the matter in conjunction with the Regatta Director so that it can never be claimed that the COVID19 affected race schedule has been manipulated by one of the teams to its advantage. Initially the Challenger of Record and Defender are negotiating over changes to the racing schedule.

No course restrictions

The restrictions on the racecourse use ae also a concern. On the final two days of Prada Cup Finals racing, after the Valentine's Day Lockdown, only Course areas A and E were used, out of a concern that stadium course use would attract crowds of fans.

It is a simple enough matter to lock off the prime spectator locations, they are locked off now under Level 3. It is a moderately simple security matter to prevent fans from congregating. The tide does half the job on North Head, and a very solid gate does the rest.

The issue with using just courses A and E is that they are largely one-way tracks, having been on the water (and in the course) for all racing, there have been no lead changes at marks, and the leader at the first or second cross has gone on to in the race. In other words, they are one-way tracks.

It may be that one team is faster than the other and can pass, but to date, we have not seen that happen and the indications are that boat speeds are surprisingly similar. The closest race on Course A was the last one of the America's Cup World Series when both yachts fell off their foils in light winds. That is hardly a test of sailing, more of course positioning and fickle winds.

The only Course which is seriously challenging of sailing skills in the traditional sense is the Stadium Course C - which has given multiple lead changes and the closest racing - even though like a golf course, it is riddled with hazards.

Applying for an Exemption to allow the Cup to continue despite the current Alert Level, is not a good look for the America's Cup, even in the unlikely event that it will be granted. Several other professional sports have lived and worked within the COVID19 Alerts for the past 12 months, and there is no reason why the America's Cup cannot their example, and do the same. International touring sides are working with the current Alert level. Why is the America's Cup so entitled that it feels it should get different treatment?

As mentioned two international cricket teams are playing NZ national sides, in Alert 2 regions, without needing an exemption, but playing in front of empty stadiums. The biggest school sporting event, the Maardi Cup for rowing, has been cancelled for the second successive year because of COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Those involved in determining the path of the 36th America's Cup, need to respect the environment that operates in New Zealand, and also the America's Cup itself. They would be well advised to take a deep breath and exercise some patience - so a regatta worthy of the Cup and its participants can be staged.

This current situation will soon pass, and it will be possible to stage the great event that the sailing world has looked forward to for so long.

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