The Road to 37th America's Cup Starts Here
Matthew Sheahan - On Location - 37th America's Cup Preliminary Regatta - Vilanova
The weather Gods seem to have it in for the America’s Cup. Looking back over the last 20+ years it seems that as the stakes increase, so do the chances of having the rug pulled out from underneath. At least that’s how it felt on the first race day of the start of the 37th America’s Cup cycle here in Vilanova il La Geltru. As the thunder, lightning, torrential rain and no breeze engulfed the town it was difficult to imagine a worse combination for any race let alone one that represents the start of the road to the America’s Cup. Having to abandon the racing before it had even started was particularly cruel given how high expectations had been having seen some of the superb footage of teams locking horns in practice racing off Barcelona the week before. If nothing else the clips demonstrated how good the new world of fleet racing in one design AC40s could be. When crews came in off the water on Friday though, several seemed pretty rattled after having dodged lighting strikes in an all carbon boat. You can’t blame them for that. On Day 2, Saturday, the picture could not have been more different. The sun was out the breeze was up and the crowds were starting to arrive. The trouble was that the weather forecast didn’t look too good for the afternoon with the breeze due to drop below the 6.5knot minimum that is required for any of the Cup races as set out in the AC Protocol. Ahead of the start many of the teams had been jump started as their chase boats pulled them up onto their foils. It’s one of the weirdest aspects of the modern foiling world which seems to defy the basic laws of physics in allowing boats to sail considerably faster than a non existent breeze. The trouble is that from there, if you fall off the foils you’re done for without enough wind to get up and running again. Or so it seemed. This made the start of the first race an absolute scramble with all the teams above the line as they tried to keep sufficient pace to stay on their foils. American Magic made the best start, dipping behind it to get under way. The Brits had quite a good start too given the conditions but came off their foils as they tried to bear away dipping another boat. At this stage the fleet was all over the place, sailing the weirdest angles various attempts to get back up onto the foils. In many cases their attempts were in vein. The impressive performance came from the Kiwis who started late, but then scorched their way up the beat and took the lead half way up the first leg. But under laying the weather mark saw them pinch to make the rounding and they dropped off their foils. In the meantime, the French Orient Racing team came through to take the lead. Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli was also doing well and managed to close in on the French but got penalised in a port and starboard on the downwind leg. As it turned out this barely mattered as the Italians were later disqualified for not starting correctly. Although they too had dropped off their foils, the French kept their lead to the finish of a race that had been shortened to two legs. After a long delay waiting for the breeze there was a last gasp attempt to get another race onto the scoreboard. Teams were towed onto their foils and dumped by their tenders 3 minutes before the start as required under the rules. But from there is was a bit like a game of musical chairs. As the clock counted down to the start Alinghi Red Bull Racing was the only boat still on its foils and able to make a start. Seeing five boats wallowing around near the start line while the Swiss charged up the first beat at over 20knots was one of the weirdest images I’ve seen in the Cup. It’s also an image that will spark a whole bundle of commentary as to whether too much has been compromised in taking the Cup onto foils. Yet, surely the reality is that there is no light weather sailing that looks good or fair. As the Swiss were half way down the second leg the Kiwis had pulled off the move of the day and had got onto their foils on their own and were now on their way up the beat, everyone else was parked. But just as the Swiss approached the bottom gate they dropped off their foils after a gybe. The chase from the Kiwis was on and by the bottom gate they had taken the lead. Seconds later the race was shortened to just three legs and after the Kiwis performed a perfect upwind leg, they took the win. Such a flukey day’s racing was not what anyone had wanted and will doubtless attract penny of criticism from those who are not convinced that foiling is the way forwards. Lets’ not go there. Instead, having seen some of the practice racing and seen just how quick the Kiwis are it’s difficult not to draw the conclusion that they are still a long way ahead and didn’t win this race by accident. Having spoken to Ben Ainslie after the race he was in no doubt that they needed to learn how the Kiwis had done this. Tom Slingsby of American Magic told me the same. It’s also interesting to note that the Kiwis had won even though they don’t need to. It won’t gain me any friends down here to say that you could argue that because these races don’t count for any points come the Cup in a year’s time, but it does show how seriously Team New Zealand takes every opportunity to practice under pressure and remind the other teams that they are the big dogs in the Cup. The other thing that struck me is that when you look at the leaderboard as it stands tonight the top slot is shared by the team with the most experience with a team that has sailed their boat for just 12 days. I’m not sure what that tells us yet other than every team is capable of winning a race and not liking 6.6knots of wind is no reason to seek to be good in it. Aside from the practical difficulties of delivering racing, the event itself in Vilanova felt much like the early days of Valencia for the 32nd America’s Cup. This is a town that is proud and excited to be hosting a major sailing event. There is a real buzz around the town and the beaches. Vilanova is tiny compared to Barcelona but this is a clear hint as to what Barcelona will be like in a year. So overall, while the racing might not have been that exciting, but we still had plenty to discuss as the sun set in Vilanova.