It was the day we saw the return of American Magic to the racecourse in the opening Prada Cup Semi-Final races, but Luna Rossa looked ominously good taking both wins

If American Magic had been dreaming of a comeback story to rival some of the best in sport then today, the first day of racing in the Prada Cup Semi-Final, saw those dreams met with a cold, hard reality. 

For all the time in the shed desperately trying to repair their boat, Patriot, over the course of the 12 days that have elapsed since their dramatic capsize and near sinking, they now end the first day of their return to racing 2-0 down in a first-to-four series against Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli. 

If it is not entirely backs against the wall time, then certainly the US outfit is standing nearing that wall. 

The early part of the racing took place in very windy weather, with windspeeds close to exceeding the 21 knot sustained average over which racing cannot start. 

American hopes dashed

Patriot has (at least before their rebuild) shown herself to be possibly the fastest boat in the fleet in the heavier conditions, so you might think that when American Magic helm, New Zealander Dean Barker, pulled back the curtains this morning (Friday 29th January) he would have been happy to see the windy weather. 

The US team do have something of a potential secret weapon in these conditions too, with a mainsail that is dramatically cut down in the top part of the leech – the team having found a rules loophole to exploit, that allows them to make up for a minimum size rules by having battens sticking a long way out the back of the leech – which they call their ‘Batwing’. We have seen them use the sail in training and it has appeared fast, if at the expense of ultimate control. 

Hutchinson says the concept is to reduce aerodynamic drag by having less sail in the sky but with the same amount of power to get foiling – in the windier weather.

American’s Magic’s ‘batwing’ mainsail with battens extending out the cut-down leech. Photo: COR 36/Studio Borlenghi

Today they set out with their ‘batwing’ rigged, perhaps hoping this might be the silver bullet they need.  

Of course, the flip side with regards the weather is that although they have managed to get their boat back on the water – going for their first test sail on Wednesday 27th January – their control systems have been completely replaced and there are bound to be some gremlins. Those gremlins in lighter winds might mean a large loss, but in the top end breeze they could very well mean another capsize or worse. 

The American team will deny it, indeed did deny it, but they looked tense onboard, more so than a team just racing to remain a part of an event in which they have invested four years and countless millions of dollars. “It all feels like a normal race day. Obviously it is quite windy and as you can see the boats are always on edge in these conditions. But I was not thinking about 12 days ago, I was just thinking about what I can do to help the team win,” commented team CEO and tactician, Terry Hutchinson, when asked if they had been nervy of the newly relaunched boat. 

Perhaps these words are down-the-line truth from the American leader, perhaps he fully believes that statement, or perhaps it’s the sort of answer given by someone with media training, batting away any possibility that his team might be at a psychological disadvantage. 

One of several big splash-downs for the US team. Photo: COR 36/Studio Borlenghi

What we do know, is that there was certainly plenty of evidence of control issues today during the Prada Cup Semi-Final racing, with Patriot seemingly losing grip with the rudder foil just after bearaways and splashing dramatically down into the water. 

Just how hard can you push a boat that does 53 knots (Patriot’s top speed of the day) when you are unsure exactly how she will behave? The answer from today appears to be ‘not hard enough’. 

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli dominate

But all this talk of American Magic, their troubles and difficulties is to do something of a disservice to their competitor, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli.

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The Italian outfit has made no secret of the fact that their boat has been at its best in the lighter wind ranges. They have been working hard on their systems and setup, and that seemed to pay off today. 

“In the past the boat has not been at its best in the strong winds, but we made some improvements. We saw that in the numbers in training, but it feels good to have it confirmed today,” so said one of Luna Rossa’s Helmsman, Francesco Bruni at the end of racing. 

Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli looked very composed throughout racing today. Photo: COR 36/Studio Borlenghi

The team’s twin helmsman setup has come under increased scrutiny from observers in recent weeks. What once appeared an impressive development, allowing better manoeuvrability without the helms swapping sides each tack and gybe, had come to look something of a deficiency as they were outmanoeuvred by INEOS Team UK, who have taken a more conventional approach with a dedicated tactician in Giles Scott.    

Today, however, the communication between Bruni, other helmsman Jimmy Spithill, and mainsail trimmer Pietro Sibello was markedly improved and is clearly something the team has been working on. It might not be conventional, but continue to improve their comms and you suspect they will be a much tougher team to beat should they go through to the Prada Cup Final. 

The Italians were not without their struggles today, however, with a slightly sketchy bearaway at one windward gate and a big skid to leeward forcing them to crash off their foils during a leeward rounding. 

Luna Rossa did have their own difficult moments in the windy conditions. Photo: COR 36/Studio Borlenghi

On that final note, it was interesting to see both teams often dropping their windward foil at the leeward gate roundings, to round with both foils down, in an attempt to stop this happening, something of which we are likely to see more if there are further windy races.

“We probably should have dropped the windward board [for the leeward rounding that went wrong] but it is hard when you are coming up at 45 knots, [dropping the board] does not feel good,” confirmed Bruni  “We skidded sideways and lost grip. And once you lose pitch on these boats, up she goes.”

The Prada Cup Semi Final opening races

To talk of both Semi-Final Prada Cup races in specifics would be to repeat more-or-less the same story twice. American Magic looked cagy in both starts and were easily outmanoeuvred by the Italian outfit. 

Trailing off the startline is not how anyone wants to start a race. 

In the very earliest Round Robin races, American Magic were criticised for not staying in contention with the other boat, by forcing a split on one side of the course or the other, slowly getting further from the lead by ending up on the unfavored side of the course. 

There was very little of that today as the Americans seemed content to follow the Italians round the course, trying to clutch onto the coattails of a boat that ultimately sailed away from them.  

There were few splits on the racecourse throughout the day. Photo: COR 36/Studio Borlenghi

Gate rounding after gate rounding saw Patriot slipping further and further behind before the conclusion that saw relatively big winning margins for Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli on both occasions. 

The forecast is for lighter winds tomorrow, which should favour Luna Rossa in pure pace terms, but perhaps with some more sailing time under their belts and winds that might allow a little more nuance than ‘get the boat around the course’ the Americans may yet come back into it. They will certainly be hoping that is the case. 

It should not be forgotten just how impressive it has been to get the boat back on the water and to make the starline today. But in Luna Rossa they are facing a fast team who care not for the Americans’ resolve and who simply want to go through to the Prada Cup Final in the quickest way possible. 

On today’s evidence it’s looking like a a case of when that happens, not if. But fickle are the winds of the Waitematā Harbour and in the America’s Cup (and events surrounding it) it is never over… until, of course, it is.

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