Tuesday, July 3, 2007

One in a Hole

You couldn't have scripted it. A seven-race America's Cup running to a conclusion made inevitable by Alinghi's big lead in the deciding race, with Emirates Team New Zealand trailing after three lead changes and now carrying a penalty that's going to cost them probably an additional 30 seconds, so you might as well go take a nap.

But wait.

There's Alinghi, almost to the finish, sailing into a hole . . .

No, not a hole exactly but there's a new wind from ahead and Alinghi still has a spinnaker up and New Zealand has already responded. The Kiwis are jib-up, spinnaker-down and on a roll in more breeze than the defender has and something's wrong aboard SUI 100. The pole is screwed up. The spinnaker is not driving the boat. That's just a lot of drag up there, and the sail is not coming down. There is no jib up and the boat's barely moving and the Kiwis are passing. NZL 92 is in front yet again and it's going to get to the finish line first.

But they still have that penalty.

This can't be happening. This is the America's Cup, not the Friday nights back home, but there it is, real as real can be.

Now Alinghi's sorted out, spin cleared and a jib drawing and finally they're getting a bit of the breeze. Yep, they're starting to move pretty well now and there's New Zealand turning up to take the penalty, just short of the line, and now they're turning back down and the turn is oh so slow. But there, it's done. And now Dean Barker has New Zealand aimed at the line again but here's Ed Baird at the helm of Alinghi also right at the line and—

At the press conference after the race, Alinghi skipper Brad Butterworth is asked what went through his mind at that moment and Baird says for him, "Please put up the blue flag."

A couple thousand people are holding their breath because somebody just won and nobody knows who.

And the blue flag does go up, signaling a win by the port-entry boat. Alinghi. By one second.

So the defender takes Race 7 after five lead changes, by my count, and America's Cup 32 is history. It's Alinghi over New Zealand, 5-2, in the most hard-fought Cup ever. More lead changes, less predictability, and Alinghi was better. That's why they won. But change anything and you change everything. This was close. In an avalanche of superlatives, the word if comes to mind.

If NZL 92 had taken the other gate . . .

If NZL 92 had settled for trailing around mark 3 instead of getting trapped in a dial-down penalty . . .

If NZL 92 had peeled to an asymmetric spinnaker when the wind first began to work forward on the finish-line leg . . .

Then there is a good chance we would all be back on Wednesday for Race 8.

"If nothing else, it makes the closing scene of WIND a lot more believable." Quote unquote Stu (sheesh, I've gotta stop quoting the Other Magazine guys) Streuli.

But you can't go far down the road of "ifs" without going nuts. The day belonged to Ernesto Bertarelli and Alinghi. The Alinghi design team produced a boat that was not overwhelmingly superior, as many people had expected, but it was the right boat. Whenever there was anything to choose from between SUI 100 and NZL 92, the edge, however small, always was with the Swiss defender.

Skipper/tactician Butterworth, in this series, finally saw his winning streak broken. He went through three Cup matches—1995, 2000, and 2003—without losing a race. And then won Race 1 of the 2007 match to make it 16 in a row. But his first three wins were 5-0 shutouts, and we know this was no shutout.

"The harder it is, the better it gets," team boss Ernesto Bertarelli said, "and this was harder than I ever thought it could be. It's been a lesson in life."

Story points:

This was American Ed Baird's first opportunity to steer an America's Cup match, but he was also part of the Kiwi team that won the Cup in 1995.

Alinghi navigator Juan Vila became the first Spaniard to participate in an America's Cup victory.

Bertarelli announced a press conference for Thursday to discuss the plans, protocol, and challenger of record (Spain) for America's Cup 33.

Off Malvarossa Beach, Valencia: July 3, 2007

Both upwind legs were about the might of the right.

Leg One: New Zealand entered the course and sailed bow forward up the first beat, so was technically ahead, but Alinghi was on the right, with starboard-tack advantage. NZL 92 was almost able to clear on the first cross, but the operant word was "almost." Butterworth kept coming at them and coming at them and gaining on the encounters so New Zealand's tactician, Terry Hutchinson, had to break it off and follow around the mark.

Leg Two: Alinghi looked solid down the run but with only seven seconds in the bank at the weather mark never looked safe. Then a bad gybe opened the door for the Kiwis to take their wind and pass. So there was NZL 92 leading into the gate, with options, and Hutchinson chose the left gate (looking upwind) thinking that it would keep the boat at best speed and optimize opportunities. Instead, he would soon be calling it, "The one that will haunt me." SUI 100 chose the opposite and gained the might of the right, again, for the next upwind leg. Ed Baird said later that his team would have been happy with either mark, "But we knew we'd be strong on the right."

It looked like a rerun of the gate in Race 6, and the outcome was the same.

Leg Three: Speaking of reruns. It was SUI 100 coming at NZL 92 on starboard, 10 tacks worth, and NZL 92 bow forward but never enough to get around. Then, closing on the weather mark, the Kiwis tried to duck, Butterworth called for a dialdown, and Alinghi nailed it. Barker/Hutchinson drew a foul, and we figured it was game over. Here's Baird: "They have to stay clear of us as long as we don't turn below 90 degrees off the wind. I was able to do that and still aim at them, and I guess the judges saw it the same way we did."

Leg Four: Alinghi had separation and the comfort zone of a penalty on NZL 92, so there was no reason to expect any excitement. But that's where we came in, isn't it? And when the breeze turned around and Alinghi's spinnaker pole shattered (I haven't told you that part yet; Butterworth said, "We had carbon all over the place.") and with the Kiwis reacting sooner to the new breeze, with no pole-shattering issues and also getting more of the new breeze, this little nailbiter almost became the turnaround that would have kept the Kiwis alive.

Again, almost is the operant term.

I'm still looking for the words to describe how Alinghi did, and did not, dominate the sailing in America's Cup 32. I'll get back to you on that—Kimball