America's Cup - May 2012

For sheer spectacle, the America’s Cup World Series regatta in Venice will be hard to beat. The juxtaposition of the hi-tech AC45 catamarans against the beautiful backdrop of ancient Venice was a photographer’s wet dream. As to the quality of the racing? Well, that’s another matter. “A joke, an absolute joke,” was Dean Barker’s grumpy assessment. More of the Kiwi skipper’s views later.

The trouble was, the wind in Venice seldom blew over 6 knots. Even with the 2-metre extensions added to the top of the AC45 solid wings, the added horsepower rarely provided sufficient grunt to lift the windward hull much of the time. There was just about enough breeze on day one, but after that, the nine boats were two hulls to the water. There were times when a Venetian gondola would have been winning the race.

Within the narrow confines of the Venice Lido, there were few overtaking lanes, making some of the racing very processional, and placing even more emphasis on getting a good start. This is where the hours and days of practice come in, or at least, they should. Yet the more practised teams such as Emirates Team New Zealand and the two Oracle Racing boats were having a hard time of it, rarely hitting the front of the fleet during the early stages of the competition.

Instead it was the two Luna Rossa boats, but Energy Team in particular, who were showing the established teams the way round. The French on Energy have looked faster whenever their younger gun, the 33-year-old Yann Guichard, has been steering the boat. He got his opportunity while Energy team leader Loick Peyron was off on his Jules Verne record attempt, with the 53-year-old skippering the 130ft Maxi trimaran Banque Populaire V to a new circumnavigation record of 45 days and 14 hours. All well and good, but not very relevant experience for racing 45ft catamarans around tiny courses in Venice, you might think.

Yet Peyron was leading after day one, and indeed continued to lead until the final day. Then, in the big-points fleet racing finale, he got another great start off the line, just behind Emirates Team New Zealand. Unlike the Kiwis, however, who were swallowed up by the chasing pack, Energy Team found a bit of breathing room which rapidly converted into a 5 minute lead. With all his high-profile adventures and derring-do around the globe, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Peyron’s CV is a good deal broader. Perhaps the most relevant experience he could bring to Venice was all the lightweight, hi-tech cat racing he has done on Lake Geneva, where the majority of the sailing takes place in drifting conditions.

In multihulls, the speed gain by steering the boat up on to a hot angle and lifting the windward float is significant. The trouble was, by the time the AC45s were managing to lift a hull in Venice, they had reached a course boundary and it was time to gybe again. Energy Team, in the meantime, were sailing a lower and slower angle with both hulls flat to the water. Not as spectacular, but the benefit was fewer gybes and better VMG to the bottom of the course. It was a classic case of the tortoise and the hare.

James Spithill and Darren Bundock, the two Oracle Racing skippers, were having a shocker. Even with his boss and four-time America’s Cup winner, Russell Coutts, on board, Bundock was finding it hard going, as indeed he has at other ACWS regattas. “Both our boats are struggling at the moment,” said Bundock, a double Olympic medallist in the Tornado catamaran. “We have done a lot of crew changes, trying to change things around and move some of the guys who'll be on the AC72 involved in some of the World Series racing. We're obviously paying for that at the moment.”

The usually cool Spithill looked agitated, feeling the pressure mounting as the results failed to flow. However, it came good on the final day. With Energy Team having broken into the lead and almost a leg ahead, Spithill was next to break clear of the pack and find his own space on the race course. With experienced tactician John Kostecki looking for what little wind there was, gradually they ground down the 5 minute gap to Energy. With just metres to the finish line it looked as though Oracle would roll over the top of the French, but Peyron held his nerve to win the race by 11 seconds. Each team applauded the other, and in its own way the result was a great victory for both.

“That was probably the lightest race we've sailed,” said Spithill. “For a while we thought Loick was gone but the boys got us back in there and we nearly took it. We've improved by watching Loick Peyron, he's been the fastest downwind here, but we just didn't learn enough off him to get him by the end! But something I'm happy with is seeing this team under pressure, and how it’s responded to the pressure. We didn't start this regatta well at all. We were at the back of the fleet. Slowly but surely we fought our way back.”

Going into the final race, seven of the nine boats were still in the running for winning overall, so Peyron knew the importance of holding off Oracle’s late charge. "Our, how do you say? Our bottom was burning, Jimmy getting so close. The start was really good, but the pressure was on at the finish.”

With AC45 racing in 4 knots of wind in Venice being such a different challenge to the one of racing an AC72 in 25 knots of breeze on the choppy waters of San Francisco Bay in a year’s time, Energy’s victory is perhaps symbolic more than anything else.

But it’s high-profile victories like these that convince wealthy individual and corporate backers to open their wallets.

Luna Rossa has no such worries, with the burgeoning wealth of the Prada fashion empire supporting the Italian team. Even so, the two Luna Rossa boats were keen to put on a good show for the massive home crowd that came to cheer them from the streets, buildings, bridges and boats of Venice. A pretty good show they put on, too, with Chris Draper steering Luna Rossa Piranha into the finals of the match racing, but falling to Terry Hutchinson and Artemis Racing in a light-airs, one-race final. Paul Campbell-James took Luna Rossa Swordfish to victory in two of the fleet races, although on the Saturday showed how fickle this game can be. Having dominated the first race from start to finish, Campbell-James failed to get a clean start in the next, and found himself being lapped by the leaders and drifting in dead last.

Such inconsistencies gave the lie to Russell Coutts’s comment when he observed: "The top teams are still winning the racing, it's a different style compared to other courses we compete on; but it just shows, it doesn't really matter what the course is, good sailing and good skill wins through.”

That’s a pretty favourable assessment of what at times looked like a lottery. In the final, high-stakes drifter on the Sunday, while Energy was ghosting around the course in her own time, there was a slo-mo seven-boat pile-up. The boats were jammed hull to hull between the rounding mark (actually a motor boat) and the shore, and a daring spectator could have run across the whole lot without getting his feet wet. At one point Team Korea wing trimmer Troy Tindill abandoned his post to fend off the boat from the Kiwis lodged right next to them. In so doing, Tindill slipped and felt into the water, although did a great job of getting himself back on board very quickly. “Get on board, Troy!” Perhaps the most superfluous piece of advice we heard from the on-board audio, but very funny all the same. I suspect “Get on board, Troy!” will haunt Tindill for the rest of his days.

Dean Barker wasn’t seeing the funny side, even when he was overheard describing the final race as an “absolute joke”. Barker had got the difficult bit right, leading off the start line, but must have found it galling for his Gallic rivals to overtake him and leave him in the dust, scrabbling for clear air as the rest of the fleet log-jammed each other to a dead stop.

“Thanks guys, really enjoyable race,” said Barker to the race committee as the Kiwi boat drifted across the finish line in 4th place. Hopefully his Kiwi sarcasm went unnoticed to those on the finish boat. It wasn’t a good look, and does Barker no credit. Yes, the America’s Cup has changed beyond all recognition, in some ways worse, but in many ways better. Better, certainly, than the bad old days of endless two-boat testing behind closed doors, with not even a camera permitted within a hundred metres of a boat. Why would anyone want to go back to that?

The America’s Cup is going through an era of experimentation like never before, and some of it will fail, but a lot of it will stick, because it’s working. As Spithill commented: “If Dean thinks this is a joke, maybe he shouldn't be out here.”




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