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Henri-Lloyd 2021 M-PRO PURE BLACK - LEADERBOARD

Emirates Team New Zealand successfully defends the 36th America's Cup

by David Schmidt 17 Mar 15:00 PDT March 17, 2021
Emirates Team New Zealand win the 36th America's Cup © ACE / Studio Borlenghi

You've got to hand it to the Kiwis. On March 29, 2018, Emirates Team New Zealand and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron - the Defenders of the 36th America's Cup - along with Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and the Circolo della Vela Sicilia - the Challenger of Record for AC36 - published the first draft of the design rule for a new class of racing yacht, the AC75, that had plenty of smart people scratching their heads. Could these odd-looking vessels with their insect-like appendages successfully foil? And if so, could they be raced in anger? The naysayers crowed loudly, but the Kiwis and Luna Rossa pressed on with their design vision for the boats, and for one of the wildest-looking America's Cups imaginable.

Soon, the world learned that the boats could in fact fly, but right as teams were launching and learning to sail their first-generation AC75s, a different kind of threat to racing emerged in the form of an airborne coronavirus that effectively ground the world's gears to a screeching halt.

But still the Kiwis pressed on.

True, they had the advantage of being a relatively small island nation that's governed by a wise and scientifically-minded leader, but, in the spring of 2020, as the world braced for the full impact of COVID-19, sailboat racing on the Hauraki Gulf in early 2021 was anything but a certainty.

But still the Kiwis, as well as Luna Rossa, American Magic and INEOS Team UK, pressed on.

Then, on December 16, 2020, the world finally got its glimpse of AC75 racing when Emirates Team New Zealand (ETNZ) squared off against Luna Rossa for the first race of the Prada America's Cup World Series (December 16-19).

Call it a harbinger of things to come, or simply the Defender's advantage, but ETNZ took the bullet in that first race as the world saw monohulls flying above the brine at previously unimaginable speeds. True, there wasn't a whole lot in the way of passing opportunities or tactical fisticuffs in the America's Cup World Series races, but this improved during the Prada Cup (January 15-February 22, 2021) as the three challenging teams learned how to spur their horses.

Luna Rossa emerged victorious and battle-hardened from the Prada Cup, and quickly a new set of questions mounted: Were the rumors true that ETNZ had a significant speed advantage over the Challenger of Record? Would the racing be tight? Would there be passing opportunities? And would the pre-starts feature the kind of nautical chess moves that the sailing world enjoyed during the 32nd America's Cup (2007) when teams were racing fifth-generation IACC boats?

True to their usual form, the Kiwis quietly and confidently pressed on.

The answers started rolling in on March 9, when ETNZ first faced Luna Rossa on an America's Cup racecourse. While ETNZ took the first win, the Italians drew blood in the second race, signaling the start of a real regatta.

The next two days progressed in a similar manner, with each team claiming enough wins to level the scoreboard 3-3 by the end of racing on March 12.

So much for ETNZ's purported massive speed advantage. While Te Rehutai was clearly very, very fast, Luna Rossa's ride wasn't slow. Granted, both teams had to lock in their measurements by March 1, meaning that boats were not being tweaked and modified in between races (and also meaning that the boats were not optimized for each weather forecast in terms of their foil selections), but both boats were also posting wins. Passing opportunities proved rare in the first half dozen races, and a wisdom took flight that he who wins the start wins the race. Both of these insights collapsed as both teams improved.

Especially the Kiwis.

While Luna Rossa was battle-hardened from the Prada Cup, ETNZ had only raced Te Rehutai six times prior to the start of the 36th America's Cup, posting five wins. (Call it national pride, but I'm happy to report that the only team to have posted a win against the Kiwis in December was the New York Yacht Club's American Magic.) This meant that they had a lot to learn about their steed in terms of modes. Plus, they were up against some of the most aggressive match racers around in the form of Luna Rossa's dual helmsmen (Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni).

Still the Kiwis quietly pressed on.

The gloves fully came off the Defender's hands on March 14, when they posted double wins against Luna Rossa, shifting the scoreboard metrics to an intimidating 5-3 in this best-out-of-13 series.

Race Eight (the second of the day) was one of the most dramatic Cup races in recent memory, with both teams experiencing great booms and busts as they each fell off of their foils, starting with the Defender. Luna Rossa saw a time advantage of 4:08 at the beginning of Leg Three turn into a nightmarish finishing-line deficit of 3:55.

While it's never a good idea to bet against Spithill overcoming a scoreboard deficit (see AC34), the Kiwis' improved modes and skipper Peter Burling's noticeably-improved starts spelled trouble for the Italians.

Race Nine was one for the ages, with an even start and multiple passes. Luna Rossa looked redeemed, but then the decision to hug the left side of the course on the penultimate leg cost the Italians a win that was otherwise looking solid.

6-3. Match point.

Which brought the sailing world to Race Ten, which would prove to be the final race in this America's Cup cycle. Burling proved dominant at the start, commanding and defending the right side of the course and owning the race all the way to the finishing line. This final race had a bit of a "boat parade" feel that was reminiscent of the first races, and it was clear that the Defender had mastered their boat, its modes, their starts, their onboard communications, and likely a million other details. It was also clear why they were the Defenders: They are one hell of an impressive bunch, from their design team braintrust all the way to their world-class sailing team, with no weak links in that chain.

So, the Auld Mug will remain in the care of ETNZ and the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron. As of this writing, it's still not known who the Challenger of Record will be for AC37, but it's anticipated that the AC75 will be back for another Cup cycle. This could prove to be a good thing, especially if the racing looks a lot more like Race Nine and a lot less like Race Ten.

As for the Kiwis, you've got to hand it to them. ETNZ and the Royal New Zealand Yacht took a big gamble with their vision for the event, and the country took a big (albeit calculated) gamble with the virus and their ability to host a world-class event during a time when the rest of the world remains masked and socially distanced.

But in both cases the Kiwis came out on top.

Which, in the year 2021, is pretty much what the world has come to expect from New Zealand.

Sail-World tips our hat to Burling, Blair Tuke, Glenn Ashby, and the entire ETNZ team for sailing one heck of a great regatta, and for having the vision and gumption to successfully pull off a Cup for the history books.

Just as importantly, we also tip our hat to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the people of New Zealand for showing the rest of the world what real light looks like at the end of the coronavirus tunnel.

May the four winds blow you safely home, David Schmidt

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