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by Mark Jardine 18 Sep 2023 12:00 PDT
Emirates Team NZ struggle to get foiling - America's Cup Preliminary Regatta - Day 3 - Vilanova - September 17, 2023 © America's Cup Media

"Pretty painful yachting," was how Emirates Team New Zealand's Glen Ashby described the Match Race Grand Final at the first Preliminary Regatta of the 37th America's Cup in Vilanova i La Geltrú, Spain.

Thankfully the pain was short-lived, as what little breeze there was petered out completely, so NYYC American Magic and Emirates Team New Zealand's race was abandoned with neither team making the windward mark inside the 10-minute time limit.

The Vilanova Preliminary Regatta was the first proper regatta for the AC40s, so there was much anticipation beforehand as to what the racing would be like. The first day was a washout, in the literal sense of the word, with torrential rain, thunder and lightning. Not the start they were looking for.

Day two was right on the edge of foiling with the wind hovering around the 6-knot mark. The teams use tow-ins to get up on the foils pre-start, and then try to keep foiling using apparent wind.

The French Orient Express Racing Team, even though they'd only had 15 days practice on the AC40 before the event, pulled off a masterful victory in the first race, while the others wallowed in lowriding mode.

In the second race Emirates Team New Zealand then did what was seemingly impossible, transitioning from lowriding mode to foiling during the race in the lightest of gusts, chasing down the early leader Alinghi Red Bull Racing, to take victory.

It was hard watching at times, but strangely addictive to see some teams at 24 knots, and others at 2.4 knots, sometimes side-by-side. Whether you class that as good racing is another matter.

Lack of wind at events, as well as too much of it at others, has been a major talking point of 2023, so it was no surprise to see yet another event blighted by the weather. My mind went back to June and the Moth Worlds in Weymouth, UK, which ended up being a non-event due to the windless conditions.

Staying on the foils through the light stuff is an art form, and there are definitely masters of it. The USA's Richard Didham is one of those Moth sailors who has the kind of smooth boat handling, eye for the breeze and plan for their course. He nailed a third place in one of the few races at the event in really marginal conditions, even though he picked up weed on his main foil on the first upwind leg. Making a calm decision about the problem saved his race as he described:

"I had to round the windward gate without clearing it, because the breeze was pretty light there. Then I sailed to the right of the course and actually did a tack, on the downwind, to clear the weed. There's never a good place to do it, but I figured since there was more breeze on the right side of the course, I could clear it and get back up in a puff quickly. I think that was the right call, based on the circumstances."

It was no different in the AC40s over the weekend. Those who looked ahead to spot the puffs of breeze to tack and gybe in were the ones who stayed on the foils, while those who were less picky ended up splashing down. To add to the complication there was a tricky swell on the racecourse which was always lurking to trip up even the best, as Emirates Team New Zealand found out to their cost. There's no doubt Lady Luck also played her part at times.

The final day saw enough breeze to hold three decent races and highlighted the potential of these boats to provide a great racing spectacle. Having the AC40s in One Design mode means it was all down to how teams sailed, and there was clearly a lot of learning-on-the-job going on. Expect the fleet to tighten up as the fast modes are found in the different wind conditions, and especially if racing is held in a couple of knots more breeze.

Comparing and contrasting this regatta with SailGP, it was great to see 'standard' windward-leeward racing, an upwind start, and the boat speed shown in knots. We've had a couple of years to get used to SailGP insisting on showing boat speed in kilometres per hour, but I've found I now simply ignore this figure, and look at where the boats are, rather than the telemetry. It's all very well trying to chase new audiences, as SailGP is undoubtedly trying to do, but please remember who your core audience is.

The 20-minute target race time is also far more palatable and gives you time to understand what is going on. A SailGP race often feels like watching a stock car race, when you're on the lookout for a big incident, rather than who is where.

Just as we saw with Luna Rossa in the 36th America's Cup, the AC40 is sailed with separate port and starboard helmsmen. It was very noticeable that the top two teams, NYYC American Magic and Emirates Team New Zealand, had four International Moth World Champions on the wheels in the form of Tom Slingsby, Paul Goodison, Peter Burling and Nathan Outteridge. Sailors with a strong foiling background seem to fit right in to AC40 racing.

Compare and contrast this with INEOS Britannia, who have the two Finn legends Ben Ainslie and Giles Scott on the wheels. Race results of 6,4,6,6,5 wasn't pretty for the team. Their starting was off the ball, they were too often in low-riding mode, and seeing them limp in to finish race 5, well behind the others, summed up their event. There are going to be some pretty glum sailors after their weekend, but at the end of the day does it matter?

The AC75 which the 37th America's Cup is going to be raced in might look similar, but it's a very different beast. Bragging rights aside, these Preliminary Regattas carry very little weight, but do raise interest in the Auld Mug as we build towards the main event between August and October 2024.

Sir Ben certainly hasn't suddenly turned into a bad sailor. Memories may be short in the TikTok age, but don't forget it was only a week ago that he won the SailGP France Sail Grand Prix in Saint Tropez. He and Giles will put more time into the AC40 and come back strong.

Overall, it was a weekend of marked contrasts. The biblical rain of Friday, the sunshine and light airs of Saturday and Sunday, the sublime speed and performance of the AC40s at times, and the painful splashdowns at others. Comparing the AC40s and F50s is inevitable for anyone who watches both, and it's clear each have their advantages and disadvantages. Right now, my preference goes with the AC40 due to its hoisting sails and that fact that's a monohull... of sorts. I also definitely preferred watching windward-leeward racing. Others will have different views, but as I keep saying, the beauty of our sport is its diversity.

Mark Jardine and Managing Editor

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