Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Rematch Is On

I expected a lot. I figured that Dean Barker and his tactician, Terry Hutchinson, would have their hands full, stomping around down there in the bush, trying to finish off a wounded lion. I figured the Luna Rossa team, down 0-4 with nothing to lose, would be savage in the prestart because we know they can be. I remember Luna Rossa putting two fouls on BMW Oracle in the prestart of their fifth race of the semis.

It was not like that. It was, however, close. Hutchinson walked off Emirates Team New Zealand at the end of the day, rubbed his face, and declared, "Man, I'm glad that's over. Those were maybe the hardest few legs we've sailed so far. Forget about it being a 22-second race. It felt like an 8-second race. At the last exchange, when we needed a gainer the most, we got it. At the finish line, I just about jumped out of my skin."

Asked to respond to the piles of speculation over recent months, on the part of some people, not all, that Dean Barker was overhorsed on the helm of Team New Zealand—Barker's been hit hard from certain quarters—Hutchinson stopped, chewed on the question for a while, then decided to say what was really on his mind:

"All those comments about Dean were crap."

At last, Team New Zealand was relaxed, smiling, ready to party. Every comment was qualified by a reminder that winning the Louis Vuitton Cup is merely a step on the road to challenging Alinghi, but New Zealand now is the challenger. The America's Cup match is more than two weeks away, 10 would-be's have been eliminated, and even the celebrated work ethic of team boss Grant Dalton wouldn't stand in the way of a champagne dousing at a moment like this.

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

Strategist Ray Davies said, "The team has been under a lot of heat. It feels good to be putting some wrongs to right."

And here is skipper Dean Barker, who was on the helm in the infamous meltdown of '03, responding to a question about the feelings of New Zealanders: "Was that loss bruising to our national pride? Absolutely. Now we've been able to turn that around."

Kiwis, you will recall, take their sailing seriously, they take the America's Cup seriously. They're a tiny island nation, but they've been in four straight matches for the Cup—1995, 2000, 2003 and now 2007—and they never expected to lose in '03 to Alinghi. Now the rematch is on.

So we saw the semifinal matches go 5-1 (Luna Rossa over BMW Oracle) and 5-2 (New Zealand over Desafio Espanol) and now the challenger final round goes 5-0 to the surprise of just about everybody. For one thing, there had never before been a 5-0 outcome in the Louis Vuitton final. "We knew from the get-go that Luna Rossa was not a team that could roll us," Hutchinson said, "but we didn't expect it to go like this."

And here's Hutchinson on the team outlook going into Race 5: "We sailed today as if it was the first race of the series."

Race Five

ITA 94, under a new certificate, spent a noticeable amount of time sailing before the start, getting used to whatever was new under the water. Probably new winglets on the bulb and/or a new rudder. A different mainsail, I believe. Why not try something? And then—

They were sitting in dialup with New Zealand on the left and Luna Rossa looking strong on the right, except that ITA 94 was too far forward and a bit too wide, wasn't she, Jimmy? So not so strong after all. NZL 92 filled her jib, spun to the right, and escaped down Luna Rossa's left side slick as an eel. Then Barker headed out toward the right-hand side of the starting box with Spithill chasing. There was a lot of jockeying as both turned back for the line on starboard, with Spithill taking the right—both boats wanted the right—and the opening gambit being distance off. That is, Barker wanted to start close to leeward of Spithill, who wanted distance off and got enough. Luna Rossa was able to live in the weather berth for a healthy distance coming off the line, something more than a minute, before tacking to port and being matched (synchronous sailing?) by New Zealand.

Hutchinson again: "Both boats had a similar game plan. We liked the right, but not the bottom right. We wanted to sail two minutes on starboard, then tack."

Once again in this matchup, the pair sailed a long port-tack board out toward the starboard-tack layline (time passes, time passes), but there was no magic right-shift to serve up the advantage to Luna Rossa. Instead, eventually, with the layline about to rain all over him, Spithill finally tacked, and Barker dropped in to leeward and inch by inch worked up into Spithill and forced him away. Score one.

But, I repeat, this was no runaway. New Zealand would have to win Race 5 all the way around the track. Luna Rossa threatened again and again and made an especially strong bid on the second downwind leg, the one where New Zealand led across the finish line by 22 seconds, which felt like 8 seconds to Hutchinson.

So now we have a 17-day break and then, on June 23, Race 1 of the 32nd defense of America's Cup.

The grab bag

The Louis Vuitton Cup press conference was held without the presence of LVC's Bruno Troublé, who invented the concept of a challenger's trophy in 1983 and has been our witty master of ceremonies since. Yes, things are not right between America's Cup Management and Louis Vuitton, a good and powerful sponsor of the game for a quarter of a century.

A fake gybe allowed Luna Rossa to separate on leg one but not take control. Hutchinson said, "We had a call that if they threw a dummy at us we would go through with our gybe anyway."

So Emirates Team New Zealand wins the Louis Vuitton Cup and, "Are they partying in Dubai tonight?" asks Stu Streuli, Sailing World editor (yeah, he's competition; I steal from everybody) who sits six feet away. Now you know what a small, incestuous world we inhabit here.

The James Spithill view has it that, "In light air, on this course, it's not often that a boat behind can pass. The story of this week is that things just didn't break our way." And what were your expectations? "Both teams were prepared for a long series." And how did it get away? "It was probably a lot of little things." And why was he not able to plant the moves on New Zealand that he did on BMW Oracle? "Dickson took a lot more risks." And how do you feel, Mr. Spithill, at the end of your third America's Cup, at age 27?

"It's been an amazing experience."

That, I believe. This is perhaps a good opportunity to remind the reader that all of us here are living a vivid experience, something that comes around only once in this guise even if you've been to other editions of the America's Cup (starting in 1980 for me) and even if you expect to see the next one.

Spithill was at the point of the spear, and he'll be back—Kimball