Sunday, June 3, 2007

The View from under Barker's Boot

Well, he did it.



Won the start.

And the result is . . .

Forget the drumroll. The result is a crushing loss. Emirates Team New Zealand home first by 01:38 over Luna Rossa. Not that winning the start caused the loss.





No one could fault Spithill and the crew of Luna Rossa for the Race 3 prestart. The main feature was a long (long is long) dialup with New Zealand on the left, out front and in trouble. Both boats well over the line. Luna Rossa in control. Dean Barker on the helm of the Kiwi boat with no good options except to sail backwards, which is exactly what he commenced to do, quickly matched by the Italian team. See the bottom of this posting for some dope on dialups and how the crews manage these boats when they start slipping backwards.

As the clock ticked down to a minute and change, Barker broke it off, sheeted in on port, and made a bid to make some something happen. What happened was that Spithill luffed, Barker responded, and while he was responding Spithill left the party to lead back for a clean, up-speed start. NZL 92 trailed like a puppy dog (no options) and the prospects looked very good for Luna Rossa to finally put points on the board. Luna Rossa entered the course on starboard tack leading by four seconds and going faster. New Zealand was downspeed and hurting.

Chris Cameron/ETNZ


New Zealand's trailing position allowed Barker to wheel up into a starboard-tack spot where he could live on Luna Rossa's hip. The Kiwis had wanted to start to the right of Luna Rossa, but the price was high. Luna Rossa quickly had a full-length lead. More than the mere nose-ahead that had proved to be enough for the Kiwis to win the first cross in the first two races. Things were looking good in Italyville.

And just as quickly, as both boats made tracks to the left, the Kiwis got pressure and an inside lift. Nothing dramatic, in 10 knots of breeze average, but enough. You could take it as proof that the gods love New Zealand. Which—come to think of it—is pretty much the message I got from the Kiwi fans at Port America's Cup. We're starting to see a lot of them around here, and they're loving it.

From the Italian point of view, the moment smacked of that old countryism, can't win fer losin.

A few minutes, a few hundred yards, and Spithill's start-line advantage was laid to waste. Both teams agreed that Luna Rossa, before New Zealand got the inside shift, needed 10 more meters of gain to be able to tack and cross. After the shift, Luna Rossa was behind, and Torben Grael, riding as tactician to Spithill's helm, hung there and hung there, hoping that the gods would spill a little something back his way. Hoping, and when he eventually saw the layline looming and gave up hoping, and Luna Rossa rolled into a tack, you could see Barker already putting his bow down to build speed for his own tack, the one that would stomp Spithill underfoot.

So, three races into the final challenger round, Luna Rossa has yet to lead at a single mark of the course. There's a lot less talk about Spithill's genius in the prestarts, and the folks in the anybody-but-Dean crowd are rapidly adjusting their position.

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

I wasn't alone in expecting to see an exciting contest between Emirates Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa. In Race 1 we had that. In Race 2 we had it for a good part of the opening leg. But it was hard to stay keenly interested in Race 3 of the Louis Vuitton Cup finals. Let's see: 40 seconds at the first mark, 55 at the second, 55 again at the third, and 01:38 at the finish after Torben went beating around the woods, hoping to get lucky, and didn't.

Now my Italian friends are depressed, and the Luna Rossa business line is "one race at a time" and that sort of stuff that really means, What can we say?

The Alleged Press Conference

No Dean Barker.

No James Spithill.

Nothing against the four fine gentlemen who were dispatched to speak to the press following Race 3, but the traditions of this event demand something more.

Here's one something: Luna Rossa afterguard member Ben Durham, challenged to justify his team's decision to go left off the line when they had a pocket full of options, "There was bias on the line. We took the bias and having them slow."

Chris Cameron/ETNZ

The Dialup

Long, long ago, when all of this was but a gleam in the eye, I sat down with American Terry Hutchinson, tactician on Emirates Team New Zealand, to get his low-down on the dial-up. The original version appeared in the America's Cup preview issue of SAIL. For those of you who missed it, here it is again:

Kids, if you want to grow up to be America's Cup sailors, pay attention when they teach you how to sail that Laser backwards. At the Cup, unless it's really breezy, dialups are the number one prestart maneuver. And if these big puppies stop, and commence slip-sliding backwards, you'd better have your game on. Our guide to the dialup, Emirates Team New Zealand tactician Terry Hutchinson says, "You're playing chicken with big boats. It takes a bit of nerve."

Well over half the starts in this fleet feature at least one dialup. The boats wheel head to wind, right alongside each other, probably close. Maybe they stay there and maybe they don't, but if they hang there long enough they'll probably start sliding, and somebody could win—or lose—the start right there.

To a spectator a dialup may not look aggressive or exciting. But if you're on a race boat it is, baby, it is. So here we go.

Yellow, entering the box with starboard-tack right of way, has an obligation under the rules of sailing and the racing rules alike to allow the port-tack boat room to keep clear. Under the match racing rules, however, starboard is allowed to "hunt" up to a point just short of collision. So the tactical aim of Yellow is to maintain a collision course while leaving room for Blue to squeak clear (barely, and shake'em up if you can).

Hutchinson says, "Part of my job as tactician is to watch the speed of the other boat. Probably the boats are reaching down toward each other on opposite tacks and the gap is closing. If I'm coming in with starboard rights, I want to match the speed of the other boat because, in a dialup, speed puts you out front, and being ahead in a dialup is dangerous; we'd rather be even or behind. If I'm coming in on port I have the opposite goal. I want to achieve a speed difference. I want to sail slower than the other boat and try to trap them into nosing ahead on the dialup."

As the boats turn into the wind and hang there, Blue will turn just enough to technically, legally, complete a tack to starboard. Now we have two starboard-tack boats with Yellow to windward and burdened to keep clear. The challenge now is to maintain downspeed control as the boats slow, perhaps stop, slip into irons, and maybe eventually begin to slide backwards. If Yellow taps the other guy he fouls. That's why, entering with starboard-tack rights, Yellow wanted to not get caught out front.

Welcome to the dialup.

"In theory," Hutchinson says, "if Yellow does it right, Yellow should win every start." Of course, reality is more complex than theory, so let's rewind and go in again from a different point of view: Two big machines, 17 racing crew apiece, and the guy on the helm isn't the only guy driving.

As the boats turn head-to-wind they slow. The flow of water over the rudder lessens, and the helmsman begins to lose control. Now it's the bowman's turn to steer the boat, by forcing the jib to one side or the other. He'll be wearing a headset and listening to the helmsman. Hutchinson says, "It's amazing how little backwinding you need to have a huge effect on the boat. To help the bowman get a grip, we have webbing sewn into the foot of our genoas. On our boat, Dean Barker will be talking to the bow saying, 'Jib left, jib right.' "

The boat on the left, formerly port-tack and now leeward-with-rights, wants to close the gap between the boats. They're thinking, Come on, tap us; do a penalty turn. (Pre-start penalties are taken after the start, which is deadly.)

If the boats stop, the sails are useless, and if the boats slip into reverse, the sails become part of the problem. Control, if any, is relative. Hutchinson says, "You have to be constantly tending the runners. Even the slightest twist can cause the mainsail to set and then you've lost the boat. You want the main flapping without resistance, so you're always easing the runners to the sail and pulling them back and easing them again."

So, handling the running backstays is a job where you can't win the race, but you just might lose it. On board the defender, Alinghi, it's one of the jobs shared by team president Ernesto Bertarelli.

The bowman by now has switched his focus to watching overlap between the boats, because sooner or later somebody's going to bail out. Hutchinson says, "Sometimes we might sit in dialup until we're ready to make a time-distance run to the starting line, but if you're the boat on the left and you're closing the gap, you have a good chance of scaring the other guy out of there."

Often, both boats bail out, circling to the left and right, respectively, and then come back for another dance. (Here's a mini Tip From the Top: Hutchinson says, "Always push the boom out, on the side you want to go to, to help the boat rotate.")

It can be an advantage to be the boat on the right. If Yellow can bail, build speed, and tack back while Blue is stalled, Yellow will be closing with starboard-tack rights and one of two things will happen: 1) Yellow will attack, swerving away at the last instant and calling down a foul on Blue; 2) Blue will see the danger and get going in time to avoid the foul, but she will be downspeed and disadvantaged.

Note that Blue would not gain a comparable advantage from a mirror maneuver because she would be returning on port, without right of way; however, she might have an opportunity to pass and become the right-side boat, if she wants that.

One thing we've seen so far in ACC racing in Valencia—more often than not, right makes might—Kimball