Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Hats off to Torben Grael

Our sport's only five-time Olympic medalist, as tactician on Luna Rossa, had a hard day yesterday. He made some calls that helped put his charge in first place, and then in second place, in a two-boat race. And he showed up to talk to the press. And I think that shows class. Thank you, Torben Grael.

You might infer from the above that I have been disappointed with the face time of certain principals. But, you know me, I'm too shy to say so.

Race 4 done and Race 5 to come

"If there was anything obvious we could do, we'd have tried it already." Quote/unquote Jonathan McKee after Luna Rossa lost its fourth race in a row to Emirates Team New Zealand. And this time they had to come from ahead to do it.

The forecast for Wednesday, Race 5 holds out a promise of more wind than the fitful 7-9 knots of Race 4, which fit NZL 92 very well in its current mode. The forecast 9-11 is enough to bring Luna Rossa back to life, perhaps, but not so dramatically that you'd start pushing your chips over to ITA 94. One thing that is obvious is that Luna Rossa does not like to tack in the light stuff, and every added knot gives her a better shot. But New Zealand passed on windshifts in Race 4, not hull speed, and extended on three of four legs.

Think split start, ITA 94 going right on their weather team's call from a line that favored the right. You've already guessed that NZL 92 went left. It was the first time we have seen such a major disagreement, much less (in the finals) a separation of 1,000 meters. It was also the first time (in the finals) that we have seen Luna Rossa out front. Luna Rossa helm James Spithill had three lengths on Dean Barker and New Zealand when they finally came back together, and Luna Rossa tacked to force the Kiwis back to the left. When they next came back together, Luna Rossa tactician Torben Grael chose to tack ahead and to leeward.

He'd take that back, if he could.

"We felt we were on a leftie," he said, "and we wanted to protect the right. But they got some pressure, and that pressure never came down to us. It's a very unpredictable place to sail. We finally got to a big rightie [that could have shifted the advantage back to Luna Rossa], but it was too late; we were already at the top of the course."

As near as I could tell, there was also something in it for New Zealand in the way of pointing ability, but I didn't have the angle to say that with my pundit hat on.

New Zealand led into the mark—overstood on a long starboard-tack board—and rounded 19 seconds ahead as the race committee signaled a leeward-mark shift to compensate for a change in the average wind direction. Not enough, perhaps. The leg was biased, making it harder to pass, and there was yet another course shift leaving the gate. By then, however, it was hard to stay fiercely interested, with NZL 92 carrying a 54-second lead into the second beat and looking unassailable.

Now we have at least one race more. The Kiwis aren't (and shouldn't) say anything cocky to jinx themselves (strategist Ray Davies: "Things can change dramatically out there; it's hard to make good calls all the way up the course") and what the Luna Rossa guys can say is as limited as what they can do. American mainsail trimmer Jonathan McKee said that they do have re-mode options, but from the way he said it I got the impression that those options do no include a deep reach into the magic mojo box. "What we can do," he said, "is go out and sail the way we have tried to sail in the last four races."

Torben Grael: "We're not slow, but we're not a rocketship."

Life at Port America's Cup

Who would have thought that this many heavyweights knew how to levitate.

Going into round robin racing we had quite a crowd of people around here imagining an ACC future with ongoing teams and lots of racing in Europe, but now that's all up in the air along with the players as Emirates Team New Zealand continues to hammer Luna Rossa into the mud. Cup in New Zealand? It scares the willy out of most of the marketing types in the America's Cup game, but it could happen. Luna Rossa helm James Spithill got the first cross today (for the first time in the finals) but has yet to lead at a mark of the course.

New Zealand needed six races to win four off semifinal opponent Desafio Espanol. Now they've won four straight against Luna Rossa, and they need just one more win to get through to Alinghi.

Some of the name-brand players will tell you, in unquotable moments, that Alinghi will walk through the challenger. That may be, but I haven't seen that pony on the track. It occurs to me that accepted wisdom hasn't taken us very far here, and the quiet, big stick from Kiwiland just keeps on whacking down one opponent after another. It's now easy to imagine them going 5-0 against Luna Rossa, which I couldn't imagine when this series began. Only weeks ago, Luna Rossa shocked the town and sent BMW Oracle to the barn, 5-1. Luna Rossa looked like the new sheriff in town. But that was then and this is now.

The best line I've heard came from Paul Cayard. He was talking about the Race 3 start, but it may prove to be a one-sentence summation of the Louis Vuitton Cup final round: "Jesse James Spithill showed up for four minutes."


Everybody's got an angle. In the space of a few hours I got the inside skinny (pssst, but don't tell everybody) that Larry Ellison is pursuing Russell Coutts with a vengeance and untold piles of gold to lead the next Oracle campaign. Really? That one's been on the street for weeks. I also got the inside skinny that Larry Ellison has decided to blow the whole thing off and not challenge again.

So, if you see me wearing my rubber boots in the media center, you'll understand.