Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Team New Zealand gets the job done

Hard to miss the contrast between the Kiwi team and the Spanish team at the end of Race 7. There were the guys on Desafío Español, not exactly jubilant at being eliminated 5-2 in the semifinal round, but walking around the deck shaking hands, exchanging the satisfaction of beating expectations and taking a young team so far. Ahead of them, now officially advanced to the final challenger round, the men of Emirates Team New Zealand were taking it like another day at the office. They're here for the Cup.

New Zealand has a heavily-Kiwi crew, but their tactician is an American, Terry Hutchinson, who commented, "We try to flat-line whether we win or lose. You needn't expect to see us turning cartwheels because we won today. The feeling on the boat was pretty much the same as the feeling two days ago, when we lost. We knew then, and we know now, that we have a big task ahead."

I think I mentioned, they're here for the Cup. And should they get it back, I think we can expect to see a pretty traditional defense in Auckland, whatever events might take place elsewhere in ACC boats.

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

Thanks to a reader here in Valencia, I am corrected on matters relating to the Challenger of Record, which formerly was BMW Oracle. However, with the fall of that team the functions of the office fall to the still-active challenger who was next to enter a challenge, Emirates Team New Zealand. The Protocol, Article 6.2. And whoever wins the final round (and the Louis Vuitton Cup) will go to the America's Cup as the Challenger of Record.

Hutchinson also allowed that maybe the strongest feeling aboard as they wrapped up their semifinal match was "a sense of relief." Everybody's used up. The drawn-out round robins exacted a toll that hasn't worn off. Hutchinson's wisecrack was true enough: "I haven't slept in about six weeks."

The other part of the equation is that Emirates Team New Zealand, while never lacking confidence, never took any step of the semis for granted. The whole world expected the Kiwis to get through the Spanish, as Hutchinson noted, "I think we were the only ones who believed they were going to take races off us."

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

Race 7 was complicated by a swell left over from a strong northeaster (blowing down the coast from Barcelona-way) that prevented racing on Tuesday. The breeze on Wednesday touched 21 knots for a time but was down to 16 at the finish, and I won't find it strange if you find it strange that "the best sailors in the world" struggle a bit to sail their boats in this stuff. It's, um, not exactly a storm. But to understand the why of it you need only get out on an ACC boat, or even near one, to see how powered-up and alive it is even in seven knots. With 80 percent of its 55,000 pounds in the ballast bulb an ACC boat does not feel or behave like most boats. And this is a Version 5 fleet that was designed from the concept forward to be at its best in less wind and sea than we had yesterday on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.

I should add, in this context, that the defender, Alinghi, took out two boats for in-house testing and racing in their separate sailing area. Having witnessed the surprising disintegration of BMW Oracle, they don't want to be next.

Race Seven

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

Karol Jablonski, the Polish helmsman of the Spanish boat, took the fight to Dean Barker and the Kiwis and looked good for most of the prestart, but not the part that counts. The critical late countdown found him locked out of the starboard-tack layline, beyond the committee boat, with the Kiwi boat crowding in, preventing the Spanish from either tacking away or gybing without a foul. It's called control. Barker let the clock wind down until he was well outside the count for a timed run (as long as your opponent is behind you, it doesn't matter how late you start) and made his turn at about 30 seconds. Jablonski had no move available except to wait, then follow. New Zealand crossed the line 17 seconds after the gun with Desafío Español two lengths back.

Inside the course, Desafío Español tacked to escape. New Zealand tacked to cover, and the rest was a formality that took an hour and 19 minutes to complete. Finish line delta: 01:18. Not that it was boring. Oh no. There was the sight'em on the first leg of Desafío Español taking on water and two guys bailing with blue buckets. Great shades of the infamous blue-bucket bailing emergency that signaled the Kiwi meltdown of 2003! Well, it didn't get that bad this time, but you don't want these boats taking on water, changing their stability characteristics, and perhaps launching into a cycle of cascading failure. Before they were halfway up the beat, the Spanish team had the issue under control.

Then, coming to the first mark, New Zealand took a big one over the bow that washed bowman Jeremy Lomas off station, carried him aft along with the mid-bow man and took the pole into the cockpit. Some heavy bandaging on the hand was required to keep Lomas in the game.

NZL 92 has a reputation as a light-air goer, but ESP 97 is definitely in full light-air mode, according to the Spanish team's former coach, Paul Cayard. Both boats held up fine yesterday, and I would imagine that everyone connected to Luna Rossa Challenge was paying close attention. The Italian boat—New Zealand's opponent in the final challenger round starting June 1—has a reputation for liking a bit more breeze than most of this fleet—Kimball