Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Real racing in an imaginary fleet

On unveiling day I hated myself for not being on the scene, but following the weather-scrambled opener to Act 13 fleet racing I remember why I decided that I'd be fine getting back to Valencia a week from now, ahead of the Louis Vuitton Cup.

Alinghi, Emirates Team New Zealand, and BMW Oracle (today's come from behind winner) all are racing older boats that, presumably, do not represent the pick of the litter. For them, this phase is about gamesmanship, crew training, learning what they can about the opposition, and revealing as little as possible about the capabilities of the boats they put on display last Sunday. Alinghi skipper Brad Butterworth says, "At this level, against this calibre of sailors, if you have a slightly faster boat you’re going to beat them. They can win races on any given day, but it’s pretty tough to beat a faster boat. At any Cup I’ve done, the fastest boat has won, and I think this will be like the others.”


For the record, BMW Oracle's old-new boat of two new boats allowed, USA 87—the one sailing the fleet races—was reworked so completely (as I understand it) as to qualify as nearly a new boat. And if you look at the short, fat keel affixed to USA 84 vs. the long torpedo affixed to USA 98, you know you're not reading an open book.

Luna Rossa has chosen to put its new ITA 94 on the line, but school is open as to whether or not son-of-Prada remains part of the old Big Four. Everybody's second boat is presumably fast and competitive, so there might be some measure in this week of racing. Emirates and BMW Oracle both feel confident of making the final four, when all the accumulated points are wiped away and a new round of eliminations will begin. They're not sweating the points from this final round of fleet racing. Others are. Luna Rossa probably has a lot to think about, and a bit farther along the row of challenger compounds, Shosholoza skipper Mark Sadler calls Act 13, "Very important. We want to go into the Louis Vuitton Cup with an extra bonus point. We’re in the one-point group and we’d really like to be in the two-point group after this regatta.”

And no, simply no. I'm not explaining the points structure here. I don't have an extra hour and a half, and the only excuse for the complexity of allotting points for Acts 1-13 is that the next few weeks in the LVC are going to go quickly, seven of eleven challengers will be cut, and from the very first short strokes of the semifinals the format becomes crystal-clear.

Desafío Español and Macalzone Latino-Capitalia are sailing their new boats because, for them, making the semifinals IS the America's Cup. If they make it, that's a Cinderella story, glass slipper and all. If they go beyond the semifinals (I'd bet your money, but not mine), we really have a story, folks, and story is what it's all about. In '83, when the Boxing Kangaroos of Australia broke the longest winning streak in sports history, that was story. In '87, when Dennis Conner won the Cup back for the USA, that was story. In '95, when the Kiwis finally broke through and "owned" the whole danged America's Cup season, that was story. Etcetera.

Perhaps there is "story" in Valencia, too. We'll know it when we see it.

Meanwhile, with teams talking about "moding" for different conditions with different keels and sails, we know that even Unveiling Day represented only a partial unveiling.

For the record, here's the fleet:

Alinghi SUI 91
Emirates Team New Zealand NZL 84
+39 Challenge ITA 85
Team Shosholoza RSA 83
BMW Oracle Racing USA 87
Luna Rossa Challenge ITA 94
Areva Challenge FRA 93
Victory Challenge SWE 96
Desafío Español 2007 ESP 97
Mascalzone Latino - Capitalia Team ITA 99
United Internet Team Germany GER 89
China Team CHN 95