Mattew Sheahan gives his views on an exciting and not-as-expected first day of racing for the America's Cup in Auckland
There are some days when you’re pleased to be wrong…today – the first day of the America’s Cup – was one of them.
After three months of speculation and deliberation over which team has the upper hand, the rumour has been working itself into a frenzy to the point where the gossip was spinning round so quickly that the chatter was returning as ‘fact’ with no good evidence to support it other than, ‘many had heard the same thing’.
As I’m sure you know, the consensus was that the Kiwis have speed to burn once the breeze is over 12 knots and that the Italians were probably a shade quicker in the light.
But, as we looked ahead to the first match of the 36th America’s Cup, what 170 years of history tells us is that the first leg of any Cup race is often an early indication of what is to come next.
It also frequently shows how the pressure of the event can get to even the most polished and accomplished teams. And today we got a hint of both.
So, by the time we had taken that into consideration as well it was clearly time to go racing before we drove ourselves completely mad.
But even before the racing had started it was easy to see just how different this Cup still is.
With Covid restrictions that ban the gathering of large groups of people ashore still in place, most of Auckland took to the water to create one of the most impressive armadas that the Hauraki Gulf has seen.
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This is my sixth consecutive America’s Cup and today was the weirdest by a long way. The big screens were switched off and the streets empty. And without the normal razamatazz it was difficult to see today as any different to those of the last three months in the Cup bubble TV compound where we have gone through the daily routine plenty of times before.
But, when the pre-show features started to roll in the TV gallery and the live TV buzz started to ramp up, things started to change.
As the Italians and Kiwis did their last minute pre-start dance our attention started to focus on those crucial seconds as both boats slipped over the line.
As I’m sure you know already, the Kiwis had the upper hand and were about to roll Luna Rossa. Spithill knew he had to do something and went for the luff. An aggressive manoeuvre that didn’t work.
We heard him discuss it with Bruni before steering up towards the Kiwis. We heard him make the protest call he had planned and we heard the umpires reply with, ‘no penalty’.
On the face of it, a knee jerk reaction, a desperate move and one that was perhaps typical of illustrating how the pressure of the occasion can get to even the best and how it can kill off your chances. I will admit that that’s what I thought at the time.
But now having gone through that sequence time and again in the process of producing the news clips and features this evening I’m not so sure. Yes, it was a gamble, but not one that was as rash as you (or I) might think, especially when you consider where the electronic boundaries around the boats lie. The Italians missed out by a small margin.
But what is true is that in such a close race it put Luna Rossa on the back foot for the rest of the race. With no significant speed advantage and no serious snakes and ladders on the race course there was no way back.
Race 1 – New Zealand 1 Italy 0
The second race was a reversal of fortunes and served to demonstrate how crucial the start is.
Burling mistimed his dive down from on high in the pre-start to gain control. Forced to tack onto port after the start it was his team’s turn to pay the price for the rest of the race.
Luna Rossa defended brilliantly and worked up a decent lead until a plan to head to the right-hand side of the course after a breathtakingly good mark rounding and tack didn’t deliver the benefits they had banked on.
Their leading margin was halved and while the Kiwis closed it down even further to finish just 7 seconds behind, a win is a win in match racing whatever the clock says.
But what I find interesting about this race is that through smart tactical sailing and flawless boat handling the Kiwis got themselves into clear air where they could turn the afterburners on and use their excess speed to get back into the race.
So perhaps it’s not that surprising that the chatter down here is that we’ve got it wrong again. The Kiwis aren’t that fast and the challengers aren’t at such a disadvantage.
Hold your horses I’d say.
I’d argue that when you look at today’s weather, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the racing was so close. The breeze hovered around the 10-13 knot range, right on the cusp of the performance crossovers of each team – at least if you believe the pre-cup chatter.
As Pete Burling said in an interview earlier this week, the first day’s result, whatever it is will give us an indication of the relative performances in one weather condition. And that’s exactly what happened today.
But as an aside, here’s a thing that blows me away. In the second race when the breeze was around 12-13 knots and when the boats bore away through gate three, Luna Rossa hit 49.8knots and Team New Zealand 51knots.
The second word in the two word sentence that I can’t go public with is ‘me’ – I’m sure you know what I mean.
When you look ahead, the forecast suggests that there are some pretty tricky times in store with light and variable breezes over the weekend. Who knows what that will deliver on the race course except that if the pre-Cup consensus is right we might see the Italians in the driving seat.
Whether this is the case or not, I will be happy to be wrong just as long as it means that we get a full event that goes down to the wire. In fact, so happy that I’m going to say that the result will be 7:2 to the Kiwis so that we end up with anything but.
There, said it,…….shoot me down!
Here’s a quick video summary
You can read more from Matt Sheahan – who is based in Auckland until the end of the America’s Cup on his blog at www.planetsail.org.