Two days to go and the picture’s becoming less clear as to who has the advantage. Matthew Sheahan reports

You can drive yourself mad at the America’s Cup trying to evaluate who will have the upper hand. As the big day looms, the non-stop round of team press conferences, private briefings and general speculation among expert commentators can send your mind spinning with facts, figures and theories. The outcome is frequently that you end up more confused and less the wiser.

With two days to go until the scheduled start of the 33rd America’s Cup that’s precisely what has happened.

Since BMW Oracle unveiled its giant wingmast it’s been difficult not to be drawn by the potential advantages that this extraordinary piece of technology might offer. The possible benefits of speed, power, pointing ability and manoeuvrability is a potent proposition for any race  boat and surely a clear advantage in a match race. But has the team over stated its confidence in the wing and the capabilities of its trimaran?

BMW Oracle Racing’s CEO Russell Coutts is keen to point out that his team’s boat is better in stronger breezes than Alinghi’s catamaran, a boat that was designed with lighter, flat water conditions in mind. Certainly the publicity shots and video clips of USA-17 blasting through a swell at 25 knots would seem to support the suggestion that they’re geared up for the breeze. Yet the dockside chatter is that the team does have concerns as to how they will cope come the day. Such issues may start with simply stepping the wing or getting the boat out of the harbour in a downwind breeze.

“Even wheeling the wing in and out of the shed makes you nervous, especially when there’s some wind,” says design director Mike Drummond. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel confident in stepping this mast, it’s the most scary thing we do. At least when we sail we’ve got options. If you get it wrong just once, you never get a chance to come back.”

He has good reason to feel nervous. A fortnight ago one of the lifting strops broke as the mast was being moved on shore. Despite assessing and repairing the damage, when the boat next sailed, a loud bang was heard during training and the day’s sailing was called off.

In another training session the on board generator failed after water got into some of the controls. While it might be possible to sail the boat manually, such a failure on the race course could be disastrous.

On the other hand, the speculation surrounding Alinghi’s prospects starts from the basis that their boat is significantly more highly loaded thanks to the forces exerted by the conventional sail plan and rig. Slam this puppy into a few big waves at even just a modest pace of 25 knots and the increase in the loads such as the 100tonne compression at the mast foot, or the 50 tonnes on the genoa tack don’t bear thinking about.

Principal designer Rolf Vrolijk has no hesitation in confirming that their boat is indeed more highly stressed, but is also quick to point out that a large part of the development process has been driving home the point that the crew need to sail within the limits for which the boat has been designed.

“Now we have sailed the boat as much as we have, it’s starting to feel like just another boat, we’ve got quite used to it,” he said. “That in itself can be a cause for concern as it’s easy to underestimate the loads that are involved.”

Then there are the issues of sail choice and changing. Assessing what sail will be required for the reaching leg in race two from 19 miles out will be a task and a half. Not only will the wind speed be an issue, but planning for the angle will require a crystal ball. Changing 30m tall headsails with 40 knots blowing over the deck is a massive task.

Vrolijk concedes that perhaps BMW Oracle’s wing will be slightly more versatile here, but goes on to point out that Alinghi V is better equipped to fly headsails and gennakers more efficiently thanks to the boat’s far stiffer structure.

In a ‘normal’ America’s Cup there would at least be some historical data, be it performances in previous races, or accurate computer models to simulate the relative speeds and modes of the boats. Here there’s nothing. USA-17’s upwind capability is just one example of the confusion that reigns. Talk to those who’ve sailed with solid wing masts and you’ll come away believing that such configurations can often sail a few degrees higher. Talk to Alinghi about what they’ve observed of their opponents and they’ll tell you they expect the American team to sail lower and faster upwind.

But it’s not just the teams that are having trouble coming to the same conclusions and evaluating how the racing might unfold. The race organisation are having to explore new and unknown territory too.

A 20 nautical mile beat presents all kinds of problems in assessing the wind speed and direction over the course, to say nothing of the task of laying marks. In 300ft of water it will be impractical to anchor buoys. Instead, boats bearing marks will have to hold station, and that includes the committee boat and the start line marks.

And spare a thought for the umpires. Keeping pace with the boats will be tricky, even in flat water. When the waves build even to just 1m, holding 20-25 knots in one of the RIBs is a bone jarring experience at best.

But perhaps the most amusing last minute issue to crop up was when someone in the Alinghi team realised that they hadn’t thought about whether they had made provision to carry a protest flag. The rumours circulating at present is that USA-17 will be flying one as she enters the start box for the first race if the Swiss decide to use their 3DL sails. But then, that’s just one of a thousand rumours and topics of discussion firing around the Darsena.

The most popular subject is that of performance, but here this America’s Cup is presenting more questions than answers and no amount of shoreside debate appears to be able to make the situation any clearer.

The only issue that is unambiguous, is that unlike any of the recent America’s Cups, the teams don’t know either.

So will they race on Monday? At the moment the prospects look good with a wind speed of 7(ish) knots from W to SW at 10am which then decreases gradually through the morning with a wave height of around 0.5m. Whether these are the real numbers or not barely matter, the real issue is that at present, the conditions look well within the limits –  whatever they are.

Therein lies another keenly discussed issue.

Racing is due to start 8 Feb 2010 with following races 10th & 12 Feb in a best of three series.

CLICK HERE to check out my blog for additional, Cup comment, analysis, video snippets and audio.


Check out our previews to the Cup as published in the January and February 2010 issues of Yachting World now available in pdf format and available free online.


**NEW VIDEO** See BMW Oracle from astern

See BMW Oracle hit 25 knots in 6-8 knots of wind

Take a video tour around Alinghi

Russell Coutts gives a guided tour of the giant wing

Official 33rd America’s Cup Site

Aerial view of Darsena and commercial harbours

More news on this as it comes to us but at present:
ESPN 360 has acquired the internet rights for the free live online coverage.
ESPN360 Free online coverage

Wind and Waves Valencia – Puertos del Estado

UK Met Office Synoptic Charts

XC>Weather Spain – Current National conditions

To Valencia by Air:
The easiest way is to fly to Valencia and then take a taxi. Approx cost of taxi to harbour, €20
See for more information
Unfortunately, at this time of year there are fewer direct flights to Valencia than during the summer season. Therefore an alternative route is to fly to Alicante and either take the train or hire a car. Driving takes approx 2 hours and car rental is cheap.
To harbour from Valencia train station:
A taxi from the train station is about a 20-minute ride.
By car:
Heading to Valencia on the A7 toll motorway, connect to the V-15 or V-30 to the port, which is signposted.