Matthew Sheahan assess the key players following the racing of Louis Vuitton Act 13

 A Cup boat showcase for spectators, or a real chance for the teams to size one another up? Opinion was split over whether the fleet racing of Act 13 did anything other than provide some close quarters drama and good photo opportunities for the snappers.

“We all should have learned that fleet racing AC boats is pretty spectacular and that the boats are close enough in speed that any boat can win on any given day,” said Peter Isler, BMW Oracle Racing’s navigator.

Rather unsurprisingly, to those that under performed the series meant little, it was the match racing that really counted, while those at the top of the table seemed similarly ambivalent about the conclusions that could be drawn from four days of racing.

“We’ve certainly had to scrap and fight hard to get second place,” said Ben Ainsle who had helmed the Kiwi boat for all of Act 13. “It’s been a good warm up and now we’re looking forward to the serious racing.”

Yet aside from the points on the board there were a number of conclusions that could be drawn both about the boats and the way that some of the teams were feeling a week into the 32nd America’s Cup.

Of the big boys, Alinghi looks stronger than ever. Their new boat SUI-91 is powerful, well rounded in its performance and once again appears to have a few more gears than the best of the rest either have, or are prepared to show at the moment. To come off the line in such poor shape, again and again, (five times out of seven according to Brad Butterworth) and yet hack their way through to win four of the races raises questions as to how and why such a competent team would let themselves trip up on the start line so many times.

“We’ve had some shockers,” said Alinghi’s skipper Brad Butterworth. “I think we had two out of seven that were good starts, but the rest were really bad.”

But to start behind and take a look at the fleet as they pass through would appear to be one possible reason.

“I’d say that’s wishful thinking,” he said when asked.

Could we even believe the penalty that the Swiss incurred when they tacked under the bow of Luna Rossa on the starboard lay line into the weather mark? The cynics might suggest that the move helped to bring the Cup holders back into the pack where they could take a closer look at some of the other boats.

If you believe the comments from some of the Challengers, their focus was more on the other Challengers in their fleet, ‘there was plenty of time to focus on the Defender later on when the time was appropriate’, said one team head. Difficult to buy this one unless you believe that the Challengers have all agreed to show Alinghi as little as possible, in this their only opportunity to get close before the Cup.

So long as the big three feel comfortable that their alternative configurations and/or second boats are significantly faster, there should be every reason to be optimistic. But if that was their best they should be very concerned. One would hope that the latter is less likely.

In a nutshell what were the main points to come out of the Act?

Emirates Team New Zealand – Didn’t really stand out in any one race and yet once again ended up as the top challenger. A modest and discrete way to win another series. NZL-84 looked good in a straight line once she was up at speed, but was slow to accelerate seemed to suffer in a seaway. Her crew seem solid both in their boat handling and in the afterguard.

BMW Oracle Racing – USA-87 is a good all rounder and it’s difficult to think there wasn’t more performance to come. Both boats are widely admired by designers and sailors and with such considerable resource and depth of talent they still remain as one of the super powers. Of their possible weaknesses, small errors can still trip them up badly and set off a chain reaction that they find difficult to control. Losing three headsails and one spinnaker in one mark rounding and being forced to sail the last beat under just mainsail alone was a possible hint and knocked them off the top in the overall standings. Ranking 2nd is not a crisis by any stretch, but could prove to be significant later on.

Luna Rossa – Like the Kiwis, the Italian team didn’t really shine in the Act and yet their results confirmed that they were firmly placed in the big four. Being beaten by another Italian team Mascalzone Latino in the Act will have dented their pride but little more. When it comes to their boats, few seem sure why the team have gone for two very different styles and remain less than convinced that such an extreme hull shape is the right way to go. Could ITA-94 be the dark horse?

Mascalzone Latino – The biggest improvers in the Challengers camp. A solid yet conservative performance on the race track and a boat that looks both powerful and forgiving in difficult conditions, of those looking to make it through to the semi finals, the Latin rascals are a very different team to last season. Yet their performance in fleet racing has usually been better than in match racing. Their current LV ranking gets them into the sought after 4th place. Can they maintain their poise and performance in Round Robin 1?

Desafio Espanol – A more erratic team on the one hand capable of scoring wins on weekends, (when the public are out en masse), yet also prone to tripping up in spectacular style. The last day’s racing was evidence of this when they scored two penalties in one weather mark rounding thanks to simple errors of judgement. If they can calm things down and even out their performance they are still strong contenders for the coveted 4th spot. ESP-97, a competent all rounder with few apparent vices.

Whether you believed what you saw or not, for those that have the resource, it’s highly unlikely that the boats and configurations will remain the same so expect to see differences when racing gets under way in Round Robin 1.

Talk and tactics are one thing, but if you believe Alinghi’s skipper Brad Butterworth’s view that boat speed is king in the Cup, the Challengers better hope that they can match that of the Defenders.

Having commented on several occasions that winning the America’s Cup is all about getting the design right, the message from the Cup holders appears to be, ‘It’s all about boat speed and we’ve got it.’

Why would you say that unless you were pretty sure you had plenty in reserve.

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