Sunday, June 24, 2007

Lions One, Christians One

I'm a reporter, not a partisan, but I have to admit. Things are more interesting around here when New Zealand is in front.

Race 2 was technically interesting while Alinghi was doing its Superior Boat thing for the first three legs, but the presumed predictability of it held the excitement level at about that. Things lit up when the Kiwis seized the lead just short of the second weather mark and defended to the finish.

The underdog has that much going for him in any sporting contest. But I think there's something else in play here. A while back I wrote a column asking, "Where are the characters of America's Cup 32?" and concluded that they had been submerged and tamed within the corporatized environment of big campaigns. Now it occurs to me that, besides being the underdog, Team New Zealand (Emirates Team New Zealand) is something of a collective character here in Valencia, relative to Alinghi. Coming in with so much to prove, making it this far, and attracting a noisy, cheerful fan base all the way from the other side of the globe, they've imprinted their presence. Alinghi, meanwhile, deliberately went low-key through the challenger eliminations, and it's not as though they haven't been nice to me and it's not as though they don't have a presence—America's Cup 32 is the defender's show, after all—but I couldn't describe them as, "something of a collective character."

I'd better not make too much of this. Mostly, amping up the excitement is about seeing the underdog get in a bite.

Geordie Shaver (Stars&Stripes 1995 and 2000; Oracle Racing 2003; color commentator 2007) watched the race and declared, "Lions one, Christians one."

And how dedicated is the Kiwi fan base? Well, remember these guys from Race 1?

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

They were back for Race 2, and in the Department of a Small World, I ran into one of them, Wayne, on the Number 19 bus 0n Sunday morning. And he had a problem. He had to make a decision. Wayne and his wife are on a long bus tour, which they ducked out of in order to come to Valencia. Anticipating Race 2, here is how Wayne framed his problem: If we stay after this to see more racing, we miss being with the tour through San Sebastián and Bilbao. I hear those are really beautiful places. If we go back to the tour we miss the racing, but then, we'd have to stay two days to see one race. But then, if they win today, who wouldn't want to see a race when they're tied 1-1? But then, if they lose, well, they'll need the support."

Race 2, Match 32, was noteworthy for breaking the winning streak of Brad Butterworth and other Alinghi team members who came over from Team New Zealand after winning in 1995, defending in 2000, and then winning in 2003 for Switzerland's Société Nautique de Genève. The winning streak in America's Cup races went to 16 races and ended on Sunday.

Race Two

The race was sailed in 10 knots of breeze, dropping off to 9 knots or so at the finish, with complicated variations throughout. Lots of pressure changes. Meaning, fully powered-up and short of the 11-knot mark where, in the ACC fleet, boats start to depower.

SUI 100 had the starboard entry, but NZL 92 sailed across the box clear, so the starboard side was up for grabs as both boats explored circles on the right-hand side of the box. It looked to me as if both boats were fighting for the right, but SUI 100 skipper Brad Butterworth said later that his team wanted the left.

Coming back toward the line with about one minute to go on the countdown, Dean Barker on the helm of NZL 92 got underneath his opponent and was all but in a position to drive Alinghi over the line early or otherwise force his advantage. Butterworth: "When they hooked us, I was afraid we weren't going to get it [the left]."

Instead, Alinghi helmsman Ed Baird was able to tack away for a B start while Barker got away ahead and moving faster, entering the course with an A+, both boats on starboard, New Zealand to weather, much like Race 1 except with less wind and less lump.

And then SUI 100 started doing its thing. Speed, maybe. Pointing, yes. And about three minutes into it, New Zealand was breathing gas (Kiwi strategist Ray Davies: "We were a bit surprised that we got spat out of there") and had to tack away.

Not everyone buys into the "left shift" story that was put out to explain how New Zealand lost its advantage in Race 1 from almost the same position. I figure that's not worth fussing about at this point. In Race 2 there was definitely no shift. Alinghi simply squeezed New Zealand outta there. The boat looked dangerous as a hungry monster. It had gone from behind to ahead and it was no accident, no fluke. There were lots of people ready right then and there to write the obituary for Emirates Team New Zealand.

But wait.

We had Alinghi leading by 19 seconds at the top mark, 13 seconds at the gate, and looking believable if not inevitable to hold that lead all the way to the finish. But that's why real competitors never give up.

Most of the way up the second beat, Butterworth said, "We got worried about the right, because New Zealand had made some gains there. Historically, late in the day, the right side of the course has been strong." And so, in their next meeting, Alinghi did not tack on New Zealand but instead continued to the right. The Kiwis, unhindered, continued left, banged into a leftie, and corked that up into a lead. Kiwi strategist Ray Davies called it, "The biggest leftie we'd seen in the whole day, and we got it just when we needed it."

Coming back to the right and then carrying on beyond the starboard layline, with Alinghi even further out and not overlapped, New Zealand had a smooth rounding and entry to the final leg. I'm sure they never felt safe in the final three miles to the finish, but Alinghi was never quite in a position to take back the lead, and the delta at the finish was 28 seconds.

Here's the quote from Alinghi team boss Ernesto Bertarelli about the exchange of lead: "It was all about the last cross on the second upwind leg, where we came back on the right and the wind went left. The boats were equal there, and I think we just tacked a little too early. It was really just a boat length in it. On the second run, the wind settled down and there were no other opportunities to pass. It's the first defeat for Alinghi in an America's Cup match, and we hope it will be the last."

Ray Davies, summing up the day from a Kiwi point of view, said, "It's huge for the team to come from behind. That's always a boost, and there is nothing worse than going into a day off on a loss. The only way to recover from a loss is to get back out there and redeem yourself."

No racing on Monday. Somebody goes 2-1 on Tuesday—Kimball