Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Even Or Not ?

About a million years ago, looking ahead to racing for the America's Cup, Emirates Team New Zealand's American tactician Terry Hutchinson predicted, "I think it will be about how they go against us in the light stuff and how we go against them in a breeze."

Well, in Race 4, Alinghi went very well against New Zealand in the light stuff.

Considering how lumpy it was, you might have thought the narrower NZL 92, with its finer entry, would be happier than the famously upmoded SUI 100 (even if it's been recently downmoded to meet its opponent partway).

If ever the Kiwi boat was going to look superior to the Swiss boat, surely this was it.

Instead, Alinghi's wire-to-wire win inspired German photographer Heike Schwab to say, "Back to normal."

And I understand.

But that's a strange thing to say, isn't it? Much less agree to. When only five minutes ago Alinghi was down one race to two and hearts were palpitating and adrenalin was pumping and a lot of really harebrained ideas were being propagated on the internet.

Not that I'm predicting an abatement of harebrained ideas on the internet.

We are reminded that, yes, Alinghi is the house bet. When Alinghi won Race One I wrote, "Who would have thought that what everybody thought would happen, would happen?"

Now we're back to what we've been successfully programmed to believe is a "normal" trend line.

Except of course under the roof of the Kiwi base, where team boss Grant Dalton would order a public spanking for such thinking.

Such explains, or so I believe, why there is a more fervent reaction among the pilgrims here when New Zealand is in front, be they Kiwi, Swiss, or agnostic.

And then there's the protest that might change everything, but probably won't change anything. Keep reading.

Do you like to race?

At the start, mystery helmsman Ed Baird and tactician Brad Butterworth got SUI 100 off the line on starboard—matching NZL 92—with speed and enough separation to live forever on their opponent's hip. Or if not exactly "forever," then beyond the port-tack layline, which in this deal is forever-enough.

It was a long drag race. Aboard NZL 92, Dean Barker and Terry Hutchinson had hoped to close up on Baird at the start line or soon after and force him away.

Not to be.

Each boat had gainer-episodes, but the averages favored Alinghi, with small cells of pressure flowing through to lift the Swiss boat off New Zealand to gain and gain.

New Zealand waited patiently for the leftie that would have put them outside on the header (to maybe gain it all back), and then a shy boy walked onto the darkened Kiwi stage and announced, "Godot will surely come tomorrow."

Or, as Hutchinson put it, "The left shift did come, when we were at the layline."

From that point on there were two events in progress: There was an earnest tussle of expert sailing technicians, on one side to hold an advantage (successful) and on the other side to bust that advantage open (unsuccessful). To anyone who can read a racecourse and appreciate the game well-played, this was a fascinating exercise. It was also a reminder that sailboat racing has shortcomings as a spectator sport.

Alinghi led all the way, with 30 seconds in the bank at the finish.

Frankly, I'm running a little low on gas to talk you through all the moves. The thing is, it sounds so much like all the races that went before: Tight cover, but loose enough to go for the gainers. And when it was all over, Brad Butterworth was challenged to declare whether this all comes down to a design race, and he said, "Yes. For the last time, yes."

Okay, the protest

In the ACC Rule, section 31.6 states: "Mainsails shall be able to be lowered to the deck without the necessity of a crew member going aloft."

Part of the deal here is that the regatta committee can enforce rules by means of random checks. Something of that happened on Wednesday, and it led to a situation that the Measurement Committee declined to carry to protest. But Emirates Team New Zealand did not hesitate. News came late in the day, with little supporting material, but fortunately Paul Cayard was ready with some insight. Here's Paul describing something that I did not see:

"After the finish, there was a request by the measurement committee for both boats to drop their mainsails without sending a man aloft. Normally a halyard is attached to the sail at the end of each day's racing to lower the mainsail. But there is a class rule that requires each yacht be capable of dropping its mainsail from the deck by way of a "trip" mechanism, for safety reasons. Team New Zealand complied immediately while Alinghi actually had to send a man up the mast in order to drop the sail. This seemed absurd to all of us here. How obviously in contravention of the request of the officials. I think this one will get discussed long into the night.

"What could come of this? Disqualification of Alinghi for non-compliance? I doubt it. Re-race the race? Maybe. That is what happened with Mascalzone and Desafio earlier in the Louis Vuitton Cup. A fine? Maybe. How much would be an appropriate fine? Stand by. We may not be done with Race 4."

There is no question that Alinghi bowman Pieter van Nieuwenhuyzen went to the masthead to release the head of the sail. However, the explanation of that, by strategist Murray Jones, is this: "They elected to do a random measurement check on our boat. One was to ensure that the mainsail can release off the main halyard lock without any assistance. So with the big waves we asked whether we could put the halyard on loosely so the whole thing didn’t fall down and break battens and damage stuff when you do actually release it. We tripped it off and that was that."

If so, the protest probably falls under the category of hassling'em if you can.

For the record

I don't know when this happened, because I certainly don't check in often, but a photograph of Russell Coutts has been returned to the walls of la casa de la America's Cup. Coutts, yes. Cayard, no. If you care, the background is here.
No racing on Thursday but we're back on Friday for Race 5, or maybe Race 4.2—Kimball