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America's Cup: American Magic defies the odds to win AC37 Preliminary Event in Vilanova

by America's Cup Media 17 Sep 2023 19:49 PDT 14-17 September 2023

Having come into the final day of the first Preliminary Regatta of the 37th America's Cup here in Vilanova i La Geltrú sitting in fifth place, it was an outside bet at best that NYYC American Magic could climb the leaderboard and challenge for a spot in the Match Race Grand Final.

But the America's Cup is where the best sailors perform and the outstanding team of the day in Tom Slingsby, Paul Goodison, Riley Gibbs and Michael Menninger put on a masterclass of big-time regatta sailing, taking their chances, sailing unbelievably smoothly and scoring a three-race string of 2-1-1 to stun the rest of the fleet.

All along the waterfront crowds flocked to see the drama unfold and with an armada of craft of all shapes and sizes making up the spectator fleet, the atmosphere was electric as the afternoon progressed here in beautiful Vilanova i La Geltrú.

For many commentators who have watched NYYC American Magic in recent training sessions it was no surprise to see the team perform. In Barcelona training sessions and all throughout the winter out in Pensacola, Florida, they have been steadily, incrementally improving under the watchful eye of President, Sailing Operations, Terry Hutchinson and the coaching team led by Tom Burnham. Today they delivered and although it was a shame for the spectators and the global viewing audience that in the Match Race Grand Final against Emirates Team New Zealand, the wind shut down and the time-limit for reaching the first mark was exceeded, thus giving the win to NYYC American Magic, no-one was in any doubt that the Americans sailed brilliantly today and thoroughly deserved to win.

The concluding day was effectively an arm wrestle over the first three races between Emirates Team New Zealand and NYYC American Magic but there were some superb performances, most notably from the Orient Express Racing Team who, after just 15 days of sailing the AC40, finished in third much to the delight of their supporters and sponsors.

Alinghi Red Bull Racing and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli had an almost 'private battle' out on the beautiful waters of Vilanova i La Geltrú over the first two races, but a gear failure for the Swiss ahead of the start of Race 3 denied the fans the spectacle in race three.

The only disappointing team were INEOS Britannia, who found that their lack of time in the boat came back to haunt them - Sir Ben Ainslie will be looking to address this ahead of the next regatta in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at the end of November.

Overall, Grant Dalton, CEO of America's Cup Events, was pleased with the regatta: "I think Catalonia and Vilanova has been amazing. I was in the Race Village a few times and felt the atmosphere, the weather has done everything it can to disrupt us, but I think that what it says to me is that the America's Cup is going to be a big event and I picked that up from the Volunteers and the people. I reflect on how well the event has been run, Leslie (Ryan) and the team have done a really good job and been well supported and that's a good team for the future. There will be a pretty serious amount of de-briefing after this to tidy up around the edges because the America's Cup is for keeps but the people of Vilanova and Catalonia, they've just been amazing and that's the bit that makes it."

Quotes from the Boats:

Tom Slingsby, Helmsman NYYC American Magic: "That was amazing, we put it together and yeah we got the result. We sailed well, a couple of little mistakes but when we made those mistakes it wasn't in too critical a time so we were able to get three good results and then lead into that final race and with the wind, it was nice knowing that you were leading going into that one. After being in fifth place last night, going into today and getting a 2-1-1 and taking the win, that's amazing. The champagne was very nice."

Blair Tuke, Trimmer Emirates Team New Zealand: "It would have been nice to have had a shot at them in that final race and obviously we would have backed ourselves, but they've been sailing incredibly well, fought back nicely and for us just a couple of unforced errors were the difference between winning and not so that's something we will look at as a group. All in all, I think we've got to be very proud with how we sailed, we set the bar in that light wind which was really pleasing."

Kevin Peponnet, Helmsman Orient Express Racing: "We felt good. It was close calls with the others, it's close racing, we feel much more confident on the boat day after day so that gives us a lot of confidence for the next event in Jeddah in a month and a half. It's a really good start for us and an incredible start for the team to be on the podium after just 15 days of sailing...I think, because we started late, everyone is surprised about the performance except us, the sailors, we saw in the line-ups that we are not that far from the front of the fleet, in tactics it's just a boat like any other boat and you have to find the right trajectory with good pace. It's a foiling boat but it's still a boat."

Jimmy Spithill, Helmsman Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli: "It was disappointing not to make the final but hats off to the Americans and the Kiwis. The Americans had a great day today, I thought they got off the line pretty well and they were able to sail clean races whereas we were stuck in the pack a bit today. I thought we sailed well in the first two to get to where we got, but in the last one after the battery change, we lost the comms system between me and Cecco (Bruni) so that was a lot more challenging than we expected it to be and what really cost us was a bad manoeuvre. It was challenging but we were in there. We had some real good races and battles, but it was a shame to finish on that note. It is what is and it's just a shame that we didn't get to see a real good battle in the final with the wind shutting off."

Arnaud Psarofaghis, Helmsman Alinghi Red Bull Racing: "For sure the mentality in the team is really positive. It's a shame to end the regatta like that but I think yesterday we did work on the review thinking we could do better and it was great because the first two races we had a full-on battle with Luna Rossa in both of them, they managed to beat us in the first one, but we managed to beat them in the second one so that was great racing and it was full-on. All the teams are sailing really well and the difference between the teams is really narrow, but the positive to take out was the performance of the boat, the performance of the team and so for the next regatta we go there with even more strength in us because we go there to win the regatta, for sure."

Ben Ainslie, Helmsman INEOS Britannia: "When I look at the overall programme, clearly we've prioritised the testing side of things too much. We thought we could get away with not putting too much time in the AC40 and still be there or thereabouts. But what this highlight's is that, just like in any other boat, you've got to be out there getting the hours in.

We didn't sail well, we didn't put enough time in the boat and there were some other underlying issues in terms of our preparation time in the boat so you put those three together, maybe we shouldn't be surprised with the result.

But any professional sporting team it's not okay to finish last so we are going to have a good debrief with Jeddah in a few months, what are we going to do to get ourselves more competitive for Jeddah but of course not completely take our focus off the test boat and making sure we have the fastest AC75 for next summer - that's the balance that we've got to find and clearly we've set ourselves up to fail here which is tough."

Fleet Race 3

Race 3 Winner: Emirates Team New Zealand (+10pts)
2nd: NYYC American Magic (+7pts), 3rd: Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (+5pts), 4th: Alinghi Red Bull Racing (+3pts), 5th: Orient Express Racing Team (+2pts), 6th: INEOS Britannia (+1pts).

Life comes down to a few moments. Sport comes down to execution and with podium places up for grabs, the chance of making this afternoon's Match Race Grand Final is in each team's hands with all to play for. With an east-south-easterly breeze of 10-12 knots, the Race Committee initiated Course 6, calling for a six-leg course and dialled into the start sequence bang on time. Huge importance was placed on the midfield to make a statement in the opening race and off the line, NYYC American Magic and Emirates Team New Zealand started at the starboard end of the line and came off with pace to establish an early order.

Overnight leader Orient Express Racing Team opted for a port tack start, ducked the fleet and hit the right boundary. Initially though the advantage was with Tom Slingsby and Paul Goodison on Magic up the middle of the course whilst Emirates Team New Zealand tacked off and played the right boundary. As the two front-runners converged for the first time, Goodison slammed a tack on the face of the Kiwis who calmly dialled away immediately to port tack and back out to the boundary. On the next cross, the crucial moment of the race happened. Peter Burling in the starboard helm on Te Kakahi closed the gap with great pace on starboard tack and when Goodison came back across, to repeat the slam of before, the Kiwis got beneath the Americans, dialled in their high mode and forced the Americans away.

Crucially, at that moment, and with the high mode engaged the Kiwis squeezed up on to the lay line to the port windward marker buoy and whilst NYYC American Magic were forced to do two more tacks to round the starboard marker buoy, the Kiwis were off and building an insurmountable lead. Alinghi Red Bull Racing, who had sailed a super-solid beat, rounded in second to chase the Kiwis off the port marker but all eyes were on the downwind speed of NYYC American Magic to see if they could close the gap.

Down the run, the Kiwis just kept it smooth and after gybing on the left boundary, came across to cover the Americans but with a lead out at 140 metres, the best front-runners in the Cup just kept on extending. An unremarkable second beat where the Kiwis maintained a watching cover over the fleet as American Magic opted for the middle early after the port buoy rounding at the leeward gate, saw Emirates Team New Zealand again extend.

Behind, the big battle was between Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli and Alinghi Red Bull Racing who had a thrilling battle behind the front two boats. The second downwind leg saw the wind drop a knot or two and suddenly it was the teams that could adapt their mode and trim to the conditions that benefitted. At the second leeward gate, a brilliant tight gybe around the mark saw the Swiss stay ahead of Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli but by the top of the second beat, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli was in touch and on their transom. After a rounding at the starboard gate, at the midway point, Emirates Team New Zealand were in a league of their own, stretching away relentlessly and headed up the final beat on leg five again with a loose cover on Magic but crucially with the ability to sail their own race. Rounding the final mark with a massive lead, the Kiwis made no mistake and flew down the final run to take a dominant first win on the final day. Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli eked ahead of Alinghi Red Bull Racing on the final beat and held down the run. The points are getting close for those top two spots.

Fleet Race 4

Race 4 Winner: NYYC American Magic (+10pts)
2nd: Alinghi Red Bull Racing (+7pts), 3rd: Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (+5pts), 4th: Emirates Team New Zealand (+3pts), 5th: Orient Express Racing Team (+2pts), 6th: INEOS Britannia (+1pts).

Easy to tell the tale of this race as being won at the start and whilst that may be true, it belies the sheer brilliance of a remarkable race executed by Tom Slingsby and Paul Goodison on NYYC American Magic.

With the fleet all bunched up at the starboard end of the start line, at the lead back in it was all about time-on-distance and finding a gap on a very crowded start line. Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli broke early to the pin end, whilst NYYC American Magic and Emirates Team New Zealand came in at pace mid-line with the Americans judging it to perfection and forcing the Kiwis off to windward.

Alinghi Red Bull Racing had started just to windward of the middle line gaggle and held a commanding starboard tack position. Nathan Outteridge was forced to duck the stern of the Swiss as they came back on port tack and quickly the Kiwis were finding no easy lanes and turbulent airflow. A slam-dunk tack on their face by Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli again pushed the Kiwis off to the right of the course and suddenly they were behind Orient Express Racing Team and struggling.

The crucial second half of the beat, saw the Americans extend into a handy lead where they could dictate their destiny. The fleet settled with Alinghi Red Bull Racing in second enjoying another big tussle with Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli but this time determined to execute and stay ahead.

At the windward mark, five boats rounded the starboard gate at pace and it was a magnificent sight as the AC40s headed out to the left boundary (looking down the course) before a fast gybe and back to the middle of the course. NYYC American Magic were smoothness personified, simply making no mistakes and over the next two legs it was all about consistency through the manoeuvres and just keeping a watching brief on the fleet. Tacks were smooth, there was no panic onboard and suddenly we saw the might of the Americans when they got ahead. Easy front-runners, they looked imperious and by the final windward mark had extended into an enormous lead that was never going to be closed.

The big battle behind on the final beat was again between the Swiss and the Italians but Maxime Bachelin and Arnaud Psarofaghis proved beyond doubt that they have serious talent, keeping ahead and deploying match-race style tactics relentlessly covering the Italians.

Another huge battle ensued behind with Emirates Team New Zealand desperate to get past Quentin Delapierre and Kevin Peponnet on Orient Express Racing Team and in the final throws of the last beat, were forced to duck the French on port but crucially, with their super-high mode deployed, eked around the starboard windward gate, hit the left-hand boundary downwind and squeezed ahead.

Every point matters in this series but what this race proved was that passing lanes are almost non-existent and it's all about boat positioning in key, crucial moments. USA took the win by a distance, Alinghi Red Bull Racing secured a brilliant second, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli in third and Emirates Team New Zealand in fourth. All to play for in the final fleet race.

Fleet Race 5

Race 5 Winner: NYYC American Magic (+10pts)
2nd: Emirates Team New Zealand (+7pts), 3rd: Orient Express Racing Team (+5pts), 4th: INEOS Britannia (+3pts), 5th: Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli (+2pts), 6th: Alinghi Red Bull Racing (DNS / +0pts).

All action in the starting box area for Race 5 and for Alinghi Red Bull Racing it was a huge disappointment to have a hydraulic issue that precluded them from starting. Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli gained a boundary penalty in the countdown as they, Orient Express Racing Team and INEOS Britannia all opted for a port tack start and set up at the port end of the line.

Spotting this, Emirates Team New Zealand reached down the line on starboard tack, high on their foils in clear air, and put serious pressure on the port tackers to keep clear. Meanwhile American Magic came in at the windward starboard end of the line, also with clear air to start and then tacked across with the port tackers to take the right-hand boundary. The Kiwis stayed left, and flew out to the boundary and when the fleet came together, it was clear that they had established an important lead that gave them control of the race. With the breeze dropping, it was all about minimising manoeuvres and the fleet criss-crossed the course.

Short-tacking was suicide. By the top mark, Emirates Team New Zealand had only executed four tacks as they elected the starboard marker to round whilst American Magic came in fast on the port marker and it looked very much like that would be that. The fleet headed off downwind and it was vanilla stuff but everything changed on the final gybe to the starboard lay line with Emirates Team New Zealand getting it all wrong on the transition through a gybe from port to starboard, splashing down and opening the door for the fleet to pass. Tom Slingsby and Paul Goodison took every advantage and seized a lead that they would just relentlessly build from there. Emirates Team New Zealand got foiling again and now the chase was on to secure their position in the Match Race final.

Thoughts of winning were disappearing fast in the distance with the Americans able to sail their own race and looking incredibly smooth, so Pete Burling and Nathan Outteridge concentrated on the fast-charging Orient Express Racing Team and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli.

The Italians held the ace cards but made a fatal mistake up the third and final beat as they slammed a slow-tack on the face of the Kiwis and in their down-speed mode allowed Orient Express Racing Team to file to windward and hold the Italians out to the left-hand boundary. Emirates Team New Zealand tacked away over to the right side of the course and by the time Orient Express Racing Team and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli came back on port tack, Emirates Team New Zealand were flying on the lay line to the port marker buoy and squeezed under both the French and Italians. Brilliant sailing from Pete Burling who headed off down the run on the right side although a heart-in-mouth moment occurred on the first gybe with the Kiwis almost falling off their foils. They held it. Just. And at the finish it was American Magic by a distance who topped the series, followed by Emirates Team New Zealand with Orient Express Racing Team in third. The Match Race Grand Final is between NYYC American Magic and Emirates Team New Zealand.

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