Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Is "Oracle'd a Verb?

Something happened here today. The underdogs took a big bite out of the big dogs and the place went crazy. There were reporters running, Kiwi fans running, an ear-shattering chorus of horns, why, you'd think the America's Cup had done been won.

Instead, it's Emirates Team New Zealand up 2 races to 1 in a first-to-five.

Picture NZL 92 closing oh so slowly toward their final meeting with Alinghi on an agonizing light-air reach to the finish—if you think it's hard to watch something like that, try being on board when you need to go faster and the boat . . . just . . . won't . . . go . . . faster—and New Zealand Herald reporter Julie Ash was watching and hardly breathing and wringing her hands and shaking like a leaf.

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

For something that started out as a snore, delay-delay-delay just waiting for the light breeze to settle down enough to get a race going, this one turned into an emotional barn burner. Have we seen such a punch-out in an America's Cup race since 1983? I don't think so. Have we ever, ever seen that many lead changes? I don’t think so. By my count there were four major, critical lead changes. Lower the bar and you easily find many more. Someone said twenty lead changes, but with the boats split wide on the way to the finish, who can really say? New Zealand strategist Ray Davies chewed on the question, then joked, "I can't count that high."

I'm in the newsroom of the Press Center as I write, and there's an energy in here—people focused, writing, nervous to get it right and get it out—that was never here in the Acts, never here in the LVC, not here even on Sunday when NZL 92 evened the score. Something happened here today. Or do I repeat myself?

So we've just had the most dramatic America's Cup race in 24 years, and who does Alinghi send to the press conference?

Rodney Ardern, runner/grinder
Dean Phipps, runner/pitman

Well-spoken, superb sailing athletes whose skills go far beyond those job descriptions.

But not up to the drama of the moment.

I was not angry.

I was insulted.

Race 3, Match 32

To answer, for now, the question implied by my headline ("Is Oracle'd a Verb?), I'd say no, Alinghi is not now looking like the next version of a BMW Oracle cockpit meltdown. Race 3 was a hard one. With the leftover lump from an overnight storm angled away from the new breeze, and that breeze plagued with oddments and strange behaviors, you couldn't just reach into your tactician's or strategist's Valencia Racecourse Playbook and turn to page 37. It was a minefield out there, and I'll bet you that NZL 92 tactician Terry Hutchinson, when he says his bedtime prayers, includes a thank-you to his lucky stars.

The same Terry Hutchinson, btw, who wore his silver-frame Kores to work today.

Given the expectation that NZL 92 favors a light breeze and SUI 100 likes more, there's no question that the Kiwis were happier than the Swiss to see a race get under way. In a press release from Alinghi, strategist Juan Vila is quoted as saying of the race committee's decision to go: "From our side we didn't see the conditions improving, but that is their call and we have to go with what they decide." A release under the America's Cup Match logo quotes Alinghi team boss Ernesto Bertarelli: "I don't think the race should have happened . . . I think we raced well and we were just unlucky . . . I'm sure for those who are watching it is exciting, but you can go to Las Vegas for that. It's not what sailing should be about."

The race winners were strangely more sanguine.

For the record, the cutoff time for racing is 1700, and the flags flew just barely ahead of that. Define "barely"? The official starting time at the end of the 10-minute countdown is listed as 1710.

So: The highlights tape on this one runs 1:43:32 plus 5 minutes in the prestart box. It was a boxing match from first meeting, and at about -30 seconds, we had SUI 100 to leeward, both boats on starboard and Ed Baird squeezing NZL 92 up and up and forcing a tack when Dean Barker didn't really want to tack. Then we had Baird hitting the line with speed, going left and looking good to the tune of maybe 3 lengths, and NZL 92 late to the line and slow but on its way to the right-hand side of the course to meet the weather team's call.

Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth, rather than leave his opponents free to explore the right, tacked early to match them. Still, there was a lot of separation. And the right-shift that Kiwi weatherman "Clouds" Badham had predicted was there waiting for New Zealand. Once in, Barker tacked, and the advantage was amazing. Maybe 4 lengths? More? And to compute the gain, add the distance NZL 92 was behind at the start. First cross to New Zealand, big time. They bounced Alinghi left a couple of times, and about halfway up they entered a zone where New Zealand, well to weather and ahead on starboard, sailed in a lifted breeze while Alinghi suffered in a headed breeze. It was a big zone, and it went on for a long time. No wonder Bertarelli was sounding a bit cross. (Some Alinghi people even questioned the Kiwi claim of a weather call.)

Top mark delta: 1:31, but this was a volatile racecourse.

Now let's fast-forward down the run to something else we're not used to seeing: the Kiwi team botching a spinnaker drop. Yet another windshift forced a change in plan for the rounding, and that had the foredeck scrambling, and mid-bowman Richard Meacham slipped overboard—caught a line and hauled himself back—and in the fracas the gennaker got sucked into the clew of the jib real ugly-like, and it stayed there for two tacks. I'm trying to think. When was the last time I saw knives out on an ACC boat? Two shots by Chris Cameron/ETNZ:

So there went the big lead, but not all of the lead, and Alinghi knocked on the door all the way up the next beat. Then, coming in close to the starboard layline but well ahead of a tacking point for the rounding, Butterworth called a tack to force the game along. Hutchinson called a dial-down to shut them out of going behind, and saved it, and then there was the same sort of exchange again but Alinghi had gained and when they got to the mark had the lead. Alinghi by 15. Back from 300, maybe 400 yards down.

Not a good time aboard NZL 92.

But what to do? What to do? If you're Brad Butterworth. How do you cover in such conditions?

Hutchinson had covered from ahead on the first run, and that allowed Butterworth to make big gains. So Alinghi played it loose. Way loose. Looser than they wanted to—a 1,300 meter split?—but then nothing came their way that felt good for a gybe and they dug themselves into a hole.

The finish: New Zealand by 25 seconds.

One thing comes out clearly. Those few who once speculated that Peter "Luigi" Reggio, the professional race officer who lays the courses and makes the go, no-calls, was inevitably in the pocket of Bertarelli to favor the defender in a doubtful situation, are now free to take up some other line of speculation.

There was a lot of chatter prior to this race about how often the boat that wins Race 3 wins the event. Often. See you Wednesday for Race 4—Kimball