America's Cup Diary - September 2006

One of the immense frustrations for an America's Cup sailor must be the feeling of being a very small cog in a massive machine. With the larger teams such as BMW ORACLE Racing or Alinghi numbering in excess of a hundred people, it's sometimes hard for individual efforts to be recognised. And if you do your job to perfection, that's no guarantee that you're going to win. Such is life in an America's Cup team.

At least being part of one of the bigger teams generally brings its rewards on the race course. Spare a thought, however, for the talented sailors working for one of the campaigns further down the Valencia pecking order. Take +39 for example, with Olympic gold medallist Iain Percy leading a group of medal- and world-championship winning young sailors, but racing in a boat that is well past its sell-by date. Lining up for a match against the likes of Alinghi or Emirates Team New Zealand with the ageing ITA-59 must feel like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Jesper Bank is another Olympic Champion - indeed a double Olympic Champion - who has barely won a race all year at the helm of United Internet Team Germany's old warhorse GER-72. Bank must find it galling to look across at his old friend and adversary from Olympic days, Jochen Schuemann (a three-time gold medallist), who rides at the back of Alinghi's rocketship. In terms of their Olympic pedigrees - arguably the most accurate measure of pure sailing talent - there is little to separate Bank from Schuemann. And yet in the vastly complex world of America's Cup competition, where money and technology play an enormous part in the outcome, Schuemann almost invariably enjoys victory while Bank is forced to endure defeat after defeat.

Not that Schuemann has always had it so good. Back in 2000, as the skipper of the first ever Swiss entry to the Cup, Be hAPpy, he had a torrid time of it. Never was an unhappy Cup campaign so inappropriately titled. The team was green and the boat was slow. Indeed this was the same hull, No. 59, which Iain Percy is forced to endure now at the helm of +39 Challenge. But how things have changed for Schuemann since then. Just three years after Be hAPpy, the German was standing at the back of SUI-64 as the second ever Swiss challenge - Alinghi - handing out a 5-0 drubbing to the Kiwis.

How the likes of Percy and Schuemann must be wishing for a similar break. After taking a beating all season in a boat that you know is slow, and coping with a level of in-house politics that is almost inevitable among a large group of highly-motivated people, it's no wonder that these sailors want to go off and remind themselves if they can still sail or not. The summer has been a hive of non-Cup activity as the sailors have fled Valencia in pursuit of glory in other arenas.

The World Match Racing Tour is a perennial favourite, as this offers the chance of competing in equally matched one-design yachts, typically ranging from 25 to 40 feet in length. There are no real boatspeed issues here, unlike in the Cup boats where the wealthier teams enjoy a small but significant edge. And so in the World Match Racing Tour the little guys relish the chance of being able to take on the big shots on a level playing field. That said, it's one of the big names from past America's Cup campaigns - the evergreen Australian Peter Gilmour - who has dominated proceedings of late. It's amazing that he isn't gainfully employed in Valencia, but this must surely be down to Gilmour's choosing. His performances on the Tour are proof that he is as sharp as ever on the race course.

Arguably the biggest summer-time employer of Cup talent is the burgeoning TP52 fleet, which has sprung out of nowhere in the past three years. These are exciting and expensive 52-footers, very light and very responsive, and thirsty for top-notch sailing expertise. With more than 20 teams contesting the six-stage Breitling Medcup Circuit this summer, many of the Cup sailors have been racking up lots of race experience - as well as a nice extra pay cheque to supplement their Valencia incomes.

Again the TP52s have offered a chance for some sailors to remind themselves - and others - of their abilities. +39 Challenge tactician Ian Walker has led a strong team aboard Eamon Conneely's Irish boat Siemens, scoring some morale-boosting victories over some of his competitors from the Cup scene. However, at the top of the leaderboard after five of the six regattas for 2006 are two yachts chock-full of troops from Emirates Team New Zealand.

After winning the Athens Trophy at the end of August, Dutch owner Peter de Ridder's Mutua Madrilena/ Mean Machine was leading by a few points from American Fred Howe's Warpath. If anything Warpath's line-up looks the stronger, with the ETNZ dream team helm/tactician/navigator combination of Dean Barker/ Terry Hutchinson/ Kevin Hall. And yet it is Corinthian owner/driver Peter de Ridder and his less famous Kiwi afterguard of Ray Davies and Tom Dodson who are leading the way.

Then there is the Olympic scene, the most popular recruiting ground for the Cup, and a place for existing Cup sailors to reacquaint themselves with small-boat skills and tactics. As the driver of the ‘B' boat for Emirates Team New Zealand, Ben Ainslie doesn't get many competitive outings in the Cup scene but he recently got back into the 15-foot Finn dinghy in which he won Olympic Gold two years ago in Athens. Training commitments with ETNZ prevented the 29-year-old Briton from defending the Finn World Championship this year, an event which he had won for four consecutive years, but there was no clash of schedules with the Olympic Test Regatta in Qingdao, China. The Finn is a notoriously tough and physical boat to sail at the best of times, and so not having raced it since winning the 2005 Worlds in Moscow 12 months previously, Ainslie didn't really know what to expect. He - and the rest of the world - would soon find out. Despite his prolonged absence from the Finn, it was as though he had never been away, as Ainslie went on to win all but two of the 11 races. He was 2nd in the two races that he didn't win.

Rumours are that Ainslie gives Dean Barker a very good run for his money during in-house training between the ETNZ boats, but Ainslie is very diplomatic on the subject, saying that things are going well in the team and refusing to elaborate much further. Qingdao provides further proof that Ainslie is one of the most extraordinary talents the sailing world has ever witnessed, and yet the likelihood is that he will play little competitive part in the Kiwis' assault on the Auld Mug in Valencia next year. Such is the way of the America's Cup, where pure sailing talent is not always enough.

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