Saturday, June 30, 2007

Proof of Concept²

My takeaway from Race 6 of the 32nd America's Cup match:

America's Cup 33 will probably be just as exciting as this one. No more 5-0. It's been 24 years since we've had a contest for the Cup that had this sort of back-and-forth drama, and the new format—the pre-event racing—is responsible. As Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth said after his come from behind win in Race 6, "The Acts brought all the boats together. If the defender has an advantage, they see it. They go into the LVC and the challengers get tough racing. And the unskirting shows everybody what you've got."

Watching first-time challengers such as Shosholoza perform well against bigger teams gave me a similar thought a long while back, and I wrote a story called Proof of Concept. Seeing this kind of competition in the Cup racing itself convinces me that I am looking at Proof of Concept².

Only a few All Black believers held out against the popular view that Alinghi would walk over Emirates Team New Zealand. Lots of people predicted a 5-0 shutout. After all, Alinghi won in 2003 and then dominated the Acts. But once again, in Race 6, NZL 92 got ahead and just might have stayed there. These boats are a close match, and so are the teams.

The scoreboard speaks for itself. I do not want to seem to diminish the accomplishments of the sailors of SUI 100, who look good to successfully defend the cup for Ernesto Bertarelli and his Société Nautique de Genève. I'm just making the point that this has been a real contest, and when it is over the Alinghi team will know they had a fight on their hands. No 1995 5-0, no 2000 5-0, no 2003 5-0.

And refined pre-event racing could make things even harder for Alinghi next time.

But there I am, writing in the past tense, as if Alinghi has already won, when New Zealand could still win the next three straight.

I'm not investing my Widows & Orphans Fund in that one, but it sure would make a great story. That's what made Dennis Conner's win in Australia so big. He went down there and won back what he had lost. It was a crusade. That had story. The Kiwis have story here, but the trend line of the last two races is all-Alinghi.

Off Malvarossa Beach, Valencia, June 30, 2007: Race 6

So Alinghi had the starboard entry. Here is Pieter van Nieuwenhuyzen (aka Peter van Alphabet) on the bow of Alinghi, reaching toward the box . . .

And entering the box . . .

I know that dialups don't look exciting, but on board the boats, they are, baby, they are. And the Race 6 dialup was a long one, both boats trying to maintain control downspeed, with rudders losing their grip on the water, crews trying to keep a grip on the boat even if the boat has almost no grip—if the mainsail catches air, you lose the boat—and it was New Zealand forced to bail first.

Ed Baird, helming Alinghi, had the starboard-tack entry to the box, and in that dialup Baird was guarding the right-hand entry to the course. As events unfolded, with both boats bailing and hustling back downwind into the box, Alinghi held New Zealand out of the right, and Kiwi helmsman Dean Barker made a close gybe that the Alinghi team wanted called as a foul.

The umpires green-flagged it.

Alinghi tactician Brad Butterworth said of the umpires later, wry on wry, "They do the best they can."

I doubt that any single photograph captures an incident, but this shot by Lyn Hines has something to say . . .

Photo by Lyn Hines

Baird was able to keep Barker controlled through the remainder of the countdown, and both boats headed out to the left with SUI 100 living comfortably to weather of NZL 92 for a long, long time. And then—

Butterworth again: "We hung in there for as long as we could, but just about two minutes short of the lay line we couldn't hold there any longer. They got a little too powerful for my liking, and we tacked away."

Advantage to New Zealand, which led at the top mark by 14 seconds, with the breeze dropping from whitecaplets at the start, maybe 10 knots, to flat, blue water at the top of the course. The breeze would be down to 7 knots at the finish.

And you want close? That first reach was close. Alinghi couldn't quite get to New Zealand's air, but there was a point at which I was watching the leading edge of NZL 92's gennaker probably as hard as the trimmers were—to see if it was going to break—until my eyeballs hurt and I realized I was overachieving.

It's been amazing to see these two boats so evenly matched: SUI 100 with more fullness forward in the hull and presumably a liking for more breeze, but the proof has been hard to come by, and NZL 92 with a finer entry and (I believe) a narrower beam, always heeling a bit more than any of its opponents and carrying more mast rake to weather. And then coming back downwind together, right together. And then the deciding moves.

New Zealand, leading in on starboard, chose to sail straight for the left-hand gate for the easiest-possible rounding with the best-possible speed.

Alinghi, trailing and also on starboard, chose to soak down for the right-hand mark, sacrifice some speed in that, sacrifice more speed by gybing, and go for separation.

And separation won it.

Add one score for the leeward gate for opening up possibilities for the boat behind in a match race.

New Zealand tacked to cover as Alinghi headed out to the right-hand side of the course on port tack, but Alinghi was getting the goods: tiny cells of better pressure that translated into more speed plus more pointing.

Butterworth again: "In these boats there is a huge difference between 7 knots and 7.5 knots, and that difference might be 5 degrees of pointing. That's what happened."

Bit by bit, Alinghi advanced to a position to come back and attack New Zealand with starboard-tack rights. Twice the Kiwis held with safe-leeward tacks, but, closing on the second weather mark, there were right shifts helping Alinghi. Barker's third attempt to plant a lee bow tack on Alinghi failed. From a position where, "We had been feeling pretty good about life," Barker said, "At one or two minutes to the layline, things turned around dramatically."

SUI 100 passed and stayed in front. Finish line delta: 28 seconds.

These kids at the Beach Club alongside the harbor, waiting for the raceboats to return, just might be Alinghi family . . .

The match now stands at 4-2 Alinghi with Race 7 scheduled to start at 1500 Sunday. If Alinghi wins, it's all over. If New Zealand wins, well, "We're still a dangerous team," Barker said. "We believe we're good enough to get ourselves back into this, but it's a big ask."

ACM would be irresponsible to not be prepping for an Alinghi win on Sunday and attendant festivities, but should New Zealand interrupt their plans, the noise from Auckland could reach all the way to the Gran Vía Márquez del Turia—Kimball