Sunday, April 8, 2007

Hopping Down the Bunny Trail

No matter where you sail, it's "never like this."

We know that big-time regattas go to light-air venues, and it blows, and vice-versa. Something like that happened last week in Valencia, when late-season rains kicked the fleet around in some of the races, but truth to tell, most everywhere you looked there was a similar story going into Easter weekend 2007.

Down in Mississippi, Jackson Yacht Club's Beer Can Race #3 was sailed in temperatures in the high thirties, with an overnight freeze, while up in Melges country, at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, folks woke up to temperatures of 27 F on Easter morn. That might be a bit colder than average, but in Zenda they don't declare a sailing season before May. Out in California the Doublehanded Farallones Race went out the Golden Gate in the murk and damp of a cold front that spread all the way to rain-starved Los Angeles; sorry, southlanders, the forecast was for clearing in time for the big egg hunt.

It's that kind of "spring." So did we see anything of significance on the Valencia racecourse? Yes, but it will take more distance and more hindsight before we know what it was, with Alinghi, New Zealand, and BMW Oracle all sailing their old-new boats and Luna Rossa and Mascalzone Latino showing well, but not winning, with their new-new boats. Alinghi won and looked good, as we see in this shot by Carlo Borlenghi for ACM 2007. And yet . . .

If nothing else we know that's the end of low-points racing, where you have the second-tier teams tilting for points that might allow them to make the cut to the Final Four, where the odds are they'll get slaughtered while delivering adequate bang for the buck to their sponsors.

Did I say that?

Actually, we know that most of the teams, especially Luna Rossa, Desafio Español, Shosholoza,and Mascalzone Latino have the goods to be a threat on any given day. And with Emirates Team New Zealand remaining on the top of the challenger board going into the Louis Vuitton Cup (launching April 16), there's no question where the center of gravity lies. But life is going to pass very quickly between now and May 14, when the Final Four kick off the semifinal round of challenger eliminations. There is no reason to doubt that New Zealand and BMW Oracle (fifth in Act 13, but so what?) will be part of that. The other two spots will be a real catfight, and at some point, BMW Oracle has to go beyond being a Force to being a Performer.

That said, there is more going on than the obvious. Here is BMW Oracle navigator Peter Isler talking about the final race: "If we had won the race with Luna Rossa second and Alinghi third, Luna Rossa would have ended up ahead of us in the overall challenger rankings. We had to engineer a situation to put Luna Rossa third or worse in the final race. We slowed the action down and let Alinghi go through. As it happened, Mascalzone Latino also got ahead of Luna Rossa, so they ended up in fourth place. When we started the final beat of the final race, we were the third-ranked challenger overall. When we rounded the mark at the end of that windward leg, we were the second ranked challenger.”

As for the points structure that has kept everybody guessing through 13 "Acts," we've finally come to a time where it sorts out almost-explainably. Here is how America's Cup Management explains the points structure going forward:

With four bonus points, Emirates Team New Zealand starts the Louis Vuitton Cup with the equivalent of two wins, the second group of three half a win less and so on down the list. The bonus points are a handy head start, a little insurance and potentially extremely valuable at the end of the Round Robin stage when it comes to determining who advances to the Louis Vuitton Cup Semi Finals.

If you remember your history, you know that Dennis Conner's Stars & Stripes did not dominate the early racing at Fremantle in 1986-87. But Conner certainly dominated the finals and the match. Is there a sleeper out there? For now, that's only a question.

The defenders have to be feeling pretty good, having shown that they can still beat a challenger fleet (in their last opportunity to mix, at that), but New Zealand and BMW Oracle deprived them of any data points on their new-new boats. And it's a shame to see underfunded, underpracticed +39 take it in the shorts with a mast broken through somebody else's error, but the hard truth is they had no real shot at longevity, and most of the action in that camp over the winter was about positioning for America's Cup 33.

When the German team—charged with causing the collision that brought down the mast—offered to give Iain Percy's team a replacement, I thought of the redemption scenes in the WIND movie and wondered if we were about to see a case of life imitating art. But the Challenger Commission voted down that exchange, which probably would not have worked out anyhow.

Meanwhile, hope springs eternal. With a new boat to play with, China Team had moments when they were actually part of the racing in Act 13. Navigator Wearn Haw Tan says, "We’ve caught up." I dig the integrated color scheme as seen in this shot by Nico Martinez:

Gotta beat the other guys to the chocolate eggs —Kimball