Saturday, June 23, 2007

Subtleties of the Breeze

Who would have thought that what everybody thought would happen, would happen?

That is, Alinghi winning Race 1 of the America's Cup match.

But I'm thinking it didn't have to happen. I think this was a weather-team race. And for almost the first time since we kicked off in April, Emirates Team New Zealand got a bum call.

New Zealand wanted the right and got it.

Alinghi believed the course was even or would favor the left--and got a strong taste of it in the prestart--and they were happy to take the left.

Being on the left determined the advantage for the leg and the weather mark rounding. But it sure was exciting for about seven minutes. In those seven minutes, with both boats going off on starboard tack, NZL 92 was nosed ahead and living to weather of SUI 100 and looking strong. And then.

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

And then a left shift dropped them into gas. They had no choice but to tack and said later they were happy to tack because they expected to strike gold on the right. They didn't.

Did SUI 100 have a touch more speed upwind in 12-13 knots of breeze and a lot of lump? Maybe. I'm not sure. Did SUI 100 have more speed downwind, which wouldn't fit the playbook? Alinghi made gains downwind, for sure, but both crews (in public, anyway) attributed that to variations in breeze and waves and catching a good one here and there. Even the 21-second gain on the second downwind leg. So I'll give them the benefit of the doubt until the evidence accumulates.

A Kiwi win in Race 1 would really have lit things up around here. Rearrange the odds and shake up the pundits and all that good stuff. And really light up the Kiwi crowds, which were doing pretty well on their own power, pre-race. This group was looking for the right place to set up . . .

And here they are, after they set up. I think you have to be Kiwi, to fully appreciate the Buzzy Bee . . .

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

But Olivia's face is plain to read . . .

Alinghi's supporters are more Swiss-sedate, with the occasional cowbell thrown in . . .

And of course, the personal touch . . .

Even people who want Alinghi to keep the Cup would rather see a hard-fought series and not the oft-predicted 5-0 shutout—a shutout that does not follow logically or inevitably from the events of Race 1. I'm telling you that I couldn't see any evidence that this result hurtles us toward a 5-0 shutout. But I have to add the disclaimer that, lately I've become accustomed to very close, dicey racing that produces lopsided points tallies. And then the sailors come back and tell us what we already knew, that the racing was closer than the slamdunk on the scoresheet.

Race 1, America's Cup 32

It was not an explosive prestart, with New Zealand's tactician (he's an American) Terry Hutchinson looking to the right and Switzerland's tactician Brad Butterworth (he's a Kiwi) looking to the left. Which probably explains why Alinghi helmsman Ed Baird (American)—entering from the left, on port—went so gently into the dialup, and out of it.

Hmmm. I'll leave that line as-is, but I doubt that, on the boat, it felt the way I wrote it. Anyway, after the breakway, Baird and Kiwi helmsman Dean Barker (amazingly, a Kiwi) boxed loosely in the right-hand side of the box, then wiggled their way upwind--Baird would have liked to lock Barker out, but it wasn't happening--and started pretty much together. The official delta was one second at the start, with NZL 92 looking to have the better speed and eking out a small, definite lead.

As we've seen all season, NZL 92 heeled more than its opponent. The Kiwi machine seems to heel more, in less wind, than any other boat here, and then to come to its lines and hold there, no matter what. Returning to the subject of that five-minute drag race to the left, and then the left shift that dropped New Zealand into gas, New Zealand's tack was followed only 20 seconds later by Alinghi. But with just that separation for leverage, and with more left-shift coming in, over the next eight minutes those little lefties made the race. Twice in subsequent meetings, Alinghi tacked to leeward of New Zealand and bounced her back to the right. Nineteen minutes into the leg, Alinghi crossed ahead and tacked on New Zealand's wind. Both teams made 15 tacks on leg one, an interesting figure because Alinghi in the final cross did not force New Zealand to tack yet again for the customary two-tack, trailing-boat penalty.

Mark 1, 13 seconds
Mark 2, 20 seconds
Mark 3, 14 seconds
Finish, 35 seconds

The breeze at the start: Gradient, 13 knots, from 75°.
Breeze at the finish: Gradient, 12 knots from 71°.

And yes, there were episodes when NZL 92 took bites out of the lead. What does that have to do with the off-direction gradient wind and extra lump, and will we see big differences if, as predicted, race 2 goes lighter in smoother water? So easy to ask. And so easy to answer. If you'll just be patient till I get back from the racecourse, one time more.

Quote Unquote (amalgamized)

Dean Barker, skipper, ETNZ:

"We had a call that we'd like to be on the right, and we were happy to get to where we thought the good stuff was going to be. We got off the line going well. But the wind went left about 10-12 degrees, and it dropped a bit. That was the key to the race. The day was all about the subtleties of the breeze. Alinghi capitalized on that. But we feel competitive, and that's the best we can ask for if we don't win the race."

Juan Vila, navigator, Alinghi:

"Our call was for the left to be favored or even, so we were happy to start to leeward. And we were in a right phase [in the prestart], so the trend was to go left next. [And boatspeed comparisons?] Pretty even, for sure, upwind. Downwind, it's harder to say."

The Day

We had fireworks for starters . . .

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

And an airshow . . .

A close start . . .

Ivo Rovira/Alinghi

And a rather good race . . .

And quite the spectator fleet. Not too long ago I read an article suggesting that it would be effective to promote the America's Cup as a green sport, because sailing is so clean. And sailing is that. But I'm not so sure about the carbon footprint of the America's Cup. I was choking on the fumes . . .

Race 2 on Sunday. The Kiwis have probably figured out that they need to win this one—Kimball