For the home team to finish the opening day of the Louis Vuitton Americas Cup World Series in Portsmouth in the lead was a dream result for Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing.
Unlike the practice day on Friday when conditions were fluky, the visibility shocking and the rain biblical, for the opening day of the 35th America’s Cup cycle the sun shone, the breeze settled down from the west and the crowds turned up in their thousands.
Having grown up racing on the Solent and being old enough to remember the good old Whitbread days when massive flotillas of spectators and supporters flocked to see the start of the race from Portsmouth, I have never seen a spectator fleet like we had today (Saturday 25 July). From the radio commentary RIB I was blown away by the interest that this event has gathered. If this is the future of Cup racing I’m all for it. Thousands of people out on the water and lining the shore to see what 45ft foiling cats look like in anger.
Indeed, so popular was the lure of the racing that you could have walked around the course boundary from deck to deck, aboard the spectator fleet. And when it came to the racing there was plenty to draw breath on as if watching a Moto GP.
In Race 1 Ainslie got too close to the line in the minutes before the start and was unable to create enough runway to accelerate for the fast reach into the first mark. Instead it was James Spithill, helming Oracle Team USA, who got the timing right, believed that a gap in the fleet was going to open up in front of him and performed the perfect slingshot start.
No sooner had he done so that he found himself on the wrong side of the course where the breeze had petered out. Ainslie found himself here too as the rest of the fleet started to run around the outside of the leaders.
But Ainslie had a comeback plan, his code zero.
As we had seen on the previous day, Ainslie’s team had anticipated the drop in the breeze and rigged the code zero, no one else had. And when he deployed the large downwind sail he was off, starting his march back to the front of the fleet.
Thirty minutes later he had completed his comeback and won the opening race, the perfect start to a home grown campaign in front of a massive crowd that appeared to know only one name, ‘Ainslie’. But he was chased hard by the man that had been his team mate less than two years before when they had won the America’s Cup, James Spithill. At this point the headlines were writing themselves.
In Race Two it was Iain Percy aboard Artemis and Dean Barker steering the newly formed Softbank Team Japan that got the best starts and the slickest reach into the first mark, yet neither managed to keep their advantage. By the finish Percy had bombed out and Barker finished fifth.
Here, Barker’s former employees, Emirates Team New Zealand, won the race but it was Ainslie’s comeback performance from buried in the fleet to second come the finish that had the crowds screaming their support once again.
His result was enough to place him in the lead overall by just one point over Emirates Team NZ who finished the day in second overall.
But, to be honest, while there was massive support for Ainslie, the reality was that most had come to see the spectacle of the new era of America’s Cup racing.
From a crowd and event point of view there was everything to feel good about – 65,000 spectators, sunshine ashore, lead changes afloat and a few glimpses of what an AC45F looks like when it gets up onto its foils.
On the other hand, there were no nose dives, near misses or record breaking runs. That, it would seem, is yet to come.
The massive arena struggled to fill itself to capacity, despite the late call to release more tickets. This side of the deal, it would seem, was ambitious.
Yet to create a big event you have to think big and there were few, if any, arguing for a smaller event next time.
Sunday’s weather forecast looks likely to throw another spanner into the works with the breeze gusting into and beyond the 30 knot zone. While individual boats and crews might be able to cope with this, asking them to perform a fleet race could prove to be a request too far.
For the opening ACWS event of the 35th America’s Cup cycle to come down to a single day’s racing would be an unjust end to months of planning. Certainly the enormous effort to stage a major event would feel un rewarded and perhaps raise questions about whether the Portsmouth event had been over ambitious.
But the bottom line remained that when it came to the curtain raiser, Portsmouth delivered and the home team secured the best result.
You can listen to live commentary from the race course on 93.7fm and online at www.sailradio.co.uk
Standings (after two races):
- Land Rover BAR – 19 points
- Emirates Team New Zealand – 18 points
- ORACLE TEAM USA – 16 points
- Groupama Team France – 13 points
- SoftBank Team Japan – 13 points
- Artemis Racing – 11 points