A small tingle of nationalistic pride was inevitable as the first British challenge for the America’s Cup since 1986 sailed out of Auckland to do battle on the Hauraki Gulf for day one of the International Road to the America’s Cup Regatta.
The first day’s results were disappointing, as skipper Ian Walker was quick to admit, but this warm-up regatta for the cup challenger series beginning next October had a drama of its own.
Each of the four contestants was individually interesting. The Kiwis were sailing the 2000 Cup-winner NZL60 for the first time against would-be rivals. One World raced with the knowledge that a legal volcano over ‘stolen’ Cup secrets was only hours away from engulfing them. Sweden had the first new-generation 2002 ACC boat to compete in official races and the Brits were just glad to be there.
Officials from the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron unashamedly borrowed the formula of mixed fleet and matchracing from last year’s Jubilee Regatta on the Solent. The kick-off race was an unhappy one for GBR as they crossed the line ahead of the other three yachts – and at least a second before the gun.
“I’m disappointed that we got it as wrong as we did,” admitted Walker, newly promoted from sailing manager to skipper by GBR backer Peter Harrison. “It was a bowman/helmsman/tactician problem and we’ve very seldom got it wrong in practice.”
Onboard jitters were obviously in control since it took time for the realisation to dawn that GBR52 was the offender and not the Kiwis – as some crewmembers insisted. The British re-rounded the mark 50 seconds adrift and that was pretty much were they stayed for the two rounds of the windward/leeward course.
A primary winch blew up on the first beat and although it was repaired with spares cannibalised from the utility winch (normal used for spinnaker work) the problem had an effect onboard. “It was the reason for our boat-handling being so ragged,” apologised Walker.
The finish order for the fleet race was Swedes, One World, Kiwis and then the GBR Challenge. Kiwi skipper was happy to acknowledge the blistering pace of SWE63. “They’re certainly not slower than we are,” he said. “It’s rare in match racing to see one boat with such an edge.”
He was referring to the third race of the day, between Sweden and New Zealand, where the Scandinavians were clearly higher and faster right off the start line and led for the first two legs. As the breeze built to around 15 knots, the extra stiffness of the Swedish boat was generating a clear speed advantage.
“Up the first beat I could hear, feel and see that we were doing OK,” commented skipper Jesper Bank, an Olympic gold medallist in the Soling class. “There was a little satisfaction in doing that against NZ who set the pace in this game – but it didn’t last.”
Approaching the second weather mark Bank was sucker-punched by a more confident Barker who lured the Danish sailor into a failed slam-dunk tack that left the Swedes in second place, where they finished 33 seconds adrift after the final leg. “I need to learn the mechanics of this boat in close situations,” reflected Bank.
Their match race against One World went much better for the British crew – until gear failure left them stranded again. Andy Beadsworth, helming for GBR, clearly won the start. “We were at the favoured pin end, powered up, and they were in the middle and slow,” said Walker. “They also had a penalty against them. In match racing it doesn’t get much better than that.”
Unfortunately, after dominating the first two thirds of the initial beat the starboard primary winch blew up and no repairs were possible. One World seized the opportunity, crossed ahead and GBR were lucky to finish only 38 seconds behind at the end of the race.
“I’m not going to blame the gear failures but these boats were designed not last one Cup, not go on and train every day for another year in tough conditions,” commen