Louis Vuitton Act 12 built up over a week and a half's racing from a beginning of utter tedium to a wonderful crescendo of the best match racing ever witnessed in any America's Cup. Watching the early round robins between billionaire-financed teams and poorer teams that can't even afford to pay their sailors an honest wage can be crashingly dull. Once the faster team gets ahead, it invariably stays ahead and stretches away to an unchallenged lead. But Act 12 culminated in a semi-final and final series which saw like pitted against like, and races where the two yachts were seemingly yoked together by a short piece of invisible thread. Much more exciting.
Unlike previous match racing Louis Vuitton Acts which have been based purely on round robins, Act 12's progression from round robin stage through to the knock-out stages was a microcosm of what we can expect to see next year in the Louis Vuitton Cup Finals. The early phases of the Challenger competition will be all about sifting the wheat from the chaff, and at the moment the gulf between the haves and have-nots remains considerable. The good matches can be far and few between at this stage, although you do get the odd shock result.
The match between Victory Challenge and Alinghi was special, one of the best we've seen in the last two years of the Acts. This was the battle of the Holmbergs (no relation to each other though), when Peter Holmberg steered the Alinghi boat very aggressively in the pre-start, to the point where he very nearly drove Magnus Holmberg and Victory Challenge over the start line. The Swedes just managed to squeak over the line as the gun fired and they accelerated up to level terms with the Defender as they broke out to opposite sides of the course. While everyone expected Alinghi to put the hammer down and eke out a lead from Victory, it never happened - as the Swedes revelled in the strongest breeze of the Louis Vuitton Acts this year.
Victory continued to lead down the run, although a fluffed spinnaker drop at the leeward gate nearly handed the lead back to Alinghi. Once again up the beat the Swedes seized control, until the very final stages when Alinghi climbed back into contention and launched into a vicious luffing match. But Magnus Holmberg wriggled free and steered around the final mark in front. The Swedes were the faster boat downwind and sailed to an unexpected and popular 21 second victory over the formidable Defenders.
This was a great performance for Victory, and very encouraging for the Swedish boat to be able to match Alinghi for speed in strong winds. However, it's one thing to be able to match the Defender in one wind condition but to do it across the wind range is a whole lot tougher. Last year SWE 63 was one of the fastest yachts in light winds but the design team, led by the Argentinean father and son partnership of German and Mani Frers, have had to sacrifice some light-air advantage for the stronger-wind pace that the boat displayed in Act 12.
Once Act 12 moved into the knockout phases, the action came thick and fast. With six matches between six well-matched teams racing on two different courses off Valencia, you hardly knew which way to turn. One of the semi-final matches between Emirates Team New Zealand and BMW Oracle ranks as one of the greatest matches of all time, in the 155-year history of the Cup. The lead was constantly in doubt with never more than two boatlengths' advantage either way. Around the final mark it was 1 second in the Kiwis' favour, then the Americans overtook, then the Kiwis seized the lead back and went on to win by 11 seconds. It was breathtaking.
There is really nothing to choose in pace between the top four teams, the Kiwis, Americans, Alinghi and Luna Rossa. The outcome of the 32nd America's Cup could well be decided more by sailing ability rather than design advantage. In the case of the Kiwis, people were beginning to question whether Dean Barker, the skipper designate of Emirates Team New Zealand, was really man enough for the job. He is a shy and retiring type on shore, although much more aggressive on the water. Barker brought that aggression to bear in Act 12 and silenced his critics with some ruthless pre-start manoeuvring in key matches. The New Zealanders looked much more settled in this regatta than in the previous Acts in May.
While yacht design of course still matters, the margins for improvement are vastly diminished compared with previous Cups. The leading Challengers have certainly moved on a click of pace with their new boats launched this year, although Alinghi continues to cause concern as SUI-75 appears every bit as quick as the other yachts out there. Just what SUI-91 will be like we don't yet know but it's unlikely to be slower. And so the Defenders have the advantage of secrecy going into next year's America's Cup finals.
As for whether or not the Challengers should have put their new boats on show quite so early, it's unlikely that any of them will have regretted their decision to race the new Version 5 boats in this year's Acts. Desafio Espanol were in a dilemma about whether to put their tried and tested ESP-67 or the newly launched ESP-88 into action for Act 12. They eventually decided to try the new one, which for the first few days was not looking all that quick. However by the end of the regatta the Spanish were winding their new boat up to speed and they would have gained valuable data from the exercise.
Mascalzone Latino-Capitalia Team had been planning to do the same until a catastrophic failure of their new boat's structure forced a rethink. During a training session the mainsheet track pulled out, the knock-on effect being that the rig tension nearly folded the boat in half. With some major repair work to be carried out before it was safe to go sailing again, the Italians were left with no option but to trot out the old ITA-77 for one last competitive outing. It was a major opportunity missed for Mascalzone and other teams not to have raced their new boats before next year.
Nevertheless, Mascalzone is one of the best improved teams this year and has been sailing well despite an ageing boat. The same is true of Victory, whose financial fortunes have also improved with the arrival of a new sponsor, Red Bull. The talk is that there is good money from the energy drink manufacturer that will see the Swedish team through this 2007 campaign and possibly into the Cup beyond. If nothing else, the sailing team will be only too pleased when they can shed their heat-attracting, sweat-inducing black sailing gear in favour of something brighter and lighter. Red Bull drink cans are silver/blue, so if this offers any indication about the possible colours of the new crew kit, the Swedes won't be winning any prizes for sartorial elegance, but at least they're less likely to expire from heat exhaustion.