Kiwis show perfect poise in an imperfect practice race. Andy Rice reports

It might have been a practice race but such is the professionalism in the TP52 class, you’d hardly know the difference between racing in practice or racing in anger. Certainly that was the case when I hopped off the huge support rib of Emirates Team New Zealand (pictured) and on to the back of Dean Barker’s TP52 in Marseille, the venue for the second leg of the Audi MedCup circuit.

Team boss Grant Dalton briefed me about where to sit and stand, what to hold and what not to hold if I wanted to keep all my fingers. With a Kiwi TV crew filming the race, Dalts lent me his Emirates Team New Zealand mid-layer top – with not a little reluctance. After all, what self-respecting Kiwi sailor wants to see a Pommy journalist hack wearing the sacred black and silver of Team New Zealand? “Don’t sweat in it,” grunted Grant at me. I started perspiring immediately, not so much that the hot Marseille sun was beating down on me but out of sheer terror at – well – upsetting Dalton.

From the rib I’d watched team coach Rod Davis put the team through some practice starts, helping Dean Barker and bowman Jero Lomas get their eye in for judging the start. Lomas is widely acknowledged to be one of the best in the business at getting the bow of his boat to cross the start on the B of Bang! Chatting to him later, I discover he doesn’t even use transits on the shore, a staple weapon in any bowman’s armoury, or so I’d thought. “You race at a lot of venues where you can’t see the shore to get a transit,” he explained, “so I like to sight the line by eye, and judging time on distance by our angle to the line and how far in the jib is sheeted.” A sixth sense that he has developed over many years.

Come start time for the real thing – or the real practice race, anyway – Lomas’s super spatial awareness was not required. Even I could tell that we were way off the line and below the layline for the pin end, where tactician, the ever-smiling Ray Davies, had wanted to position the boat. A last-minute 20 degree windshift suddenly changed the whole geometry of the start, and in the blink of an eye the Kiwis’ perfect plan was in shreds. They had to wait patiently for other boats to start before they could cross behind on port. Time for a good yell and shout, at least that’s what you’d expect when things turn to custard. But not on this boat. If you didn’t understand sailing you’d have had no inkling that anything had gone wrong. No raised voices, no barked orders from quiet Dean Barker, just an immediate adoption of plan B to get them out of the mess they found themselves in.

When a clear lane opened up out to the left-hand side of the course, the Kiwis took it, hammering along at 8 knots in 10 knots of wind, while one by one their rivals peeled away out to sea. Davies and strategist Adam Beashel had decided they’d wanted the left, the shoreside of the beautiful Bay of Marseille. The hunch for the left proved to be correct with the underdog team on Audi Q8 capitalising on a great start and a long hitch to the left to lead comfortably – by TP52 standards – around the first windward mark. After that shocking start, a mid-fleet rounding in the 11-boat pack was not too bad.

Adam Beashel made some beautiful calls to position ETNZ in the centre of some narrow streaks of stronger breeze down the centre of the course and in no time we were up to third. With Audi Q8 far in front and extending, the target for New Zealand was Matador in second place. The Kiwis again used the power of the gustier breeze near the shore to squeeze ahead of the Argentinean boat to get around the final windward mark in a narrow 2nd place. But the,n disaster as the charging Matador picked up a big gust and surfed over the top of the stranded Kiwis, while more South Americans, the Chilean Pisco Sour team poured down the inside. The Kiwis were caught in a Latin sandwich. Still no shouting, just a calm plan by Ray Davies to get back the lost ground. Gybing just a few yards further out to sea, Davies and Beashel found the magic gust to get the boat back ahead of the South Americans and claim second across the finish line.

Usually Yachting World’s Matt Sheahan wins the practice race for whichever boat he finds himself on, only for that same boat to bomb in the actual series. The classic jinx of winning the practice race which any sensible sailor does his best to avoid. So I felt I’d done my duty in delivering a second place for Dean Barker’s crew, and was vindicated when ‘my team’ went on to win the first proper race of the Marseille event earlier today. Job done, and if the Kiwis go on to win in Marseille then maybe Grant Dalton will even forgive me for my profuse Pommy perspiration in his black jacket.

Watch the animated race summary: