Friday, June 1, 2007

Right Makes Might

The conclusion to be drawn from Race One of the challenger finals is that New Zealand beat Luna Rossa by refusing to bet on the breeze. It was a hard-headed decision from a team that prides itself on such things.

The other news of the day: Those of you who have been planning to watch some ACC racing on San Francisco Bay in September now have time on your hands. BMW Oracle Racing chief Larry Ellison, who had pushed hard to make a regatta happen on his home waters, now has his people saying that, instead, the team needs time "to regroup." Oracle never formally announced any plans for the event and tried to avoid getting press on the subject until and unless all the ducks lined up. For good reason, obviously. But it wasn't a manageable secret, so here we are, and there we're not.

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

Race One: The eight-second differential at the finish line, for once, tells us the race as the sailors lived it. Emirates Team New Zealand's Ray Davies said his opponent, Luna Rossa, was "pretty dangerous most of the way around the course."

That's the way it looked to me. But the Luna Rossa afterguard bet on the breeze.

Aboard Luna Rossa, according to tactician Torben Grael, there was an opinion that the left might pay enough to compensate for the standard-issue right-side advantages—that you can't win from the left unless you gain enough to cross ahead on port, meaning that you must gain a boat length at least, plus room to tack; perhaps 120 feet minimum.

The breeze of the day was erratic, but trending to the right as the seabreeze component grew. Aboard New Zealand the big-picture weather call was to fight for the right side, especially because the breeze had already been in a left phase, "But we didn't have a lot of confidence in that," Davies said. New Zealand did fight for the right, however: "We made it clear to Dean that we thought it would be hard to get around them if they were on the right side of us." Which proved to be exactly the case for Luna Rossa, with New Zealand on the right of them.

It was and it wasn't all over in the prestart.

Luna Rossa helmsman James Spithill--he entered with starboard-tack advantage, won on a coin toss, but handed it away--had New Zealand helmsman Dean Barker on the right side of the box in the prestart and looked to be making a bid to lock him out of the starboard-tack layline. But that wasn't happening. When Barker got scrappy about taking the right, Spithill seemed happy to shrug and go left.

Barker gybed and made the first bid for the line. Spithill set up below him but with extra time on the clock and no attack option except to try to close the gap. Failing that, Spithill settled for an even start, and Barker was able to live on his hip for about a minute and a half coming off the line. The Kiwis tacked first, Luna Rossa accompanied, and if you were looking for boatspeed drama on the long port-track board that followed you were looking in vain.

Here's Luna Rossa tactician Torben Grael's version of events: "We were happy with our start. Then we lost on a long port tack board to the right side of the course when they got to the shift first. The story could have been different."

Yes, it could have been different, but that's the story. New Zealand was right to fight for the right. When Barker got the shift and came back on starboard, Spithill went for a lee bow attack, but it didn't have any teeth in it. New Zealand held, and with that, took the race in hand.

The breeze had lots of shifts in direction and pressure, and the right-trend continued, with New Zealand consistently, persistently, with bullet-headed precision, protecting its advantage there. Luna Rossa closed on the final downwind leg, as the breeze dropped to 11 knots from 12-14 at the start, and a windshift then could have switched the advantage. With Luna Rossa coming on strong, ETNZ gybed in front of them, close to the finish line, giving away some distance but preserving position. I heard some criticism of that call. But at this level, if you don't have confidence that your crew can gybe when they have to, you might as well go home now. And you can't argue with first points on the board.

No blow-out, this. All indications are, in this matchup, the last man standing will go down a few times first—Kimball