Two down, but how many more to go? Matthew Sheahan considers what we've seen so far in the first two races of the America's Cup

 Two races down, with an even score and twenty-four hours later, the analysis of both teams and their performances has been intense.

Does Alinghi have a rocket ship? Can the Kiwis pull off another win and is it possible to draw conclusions from what we’ve seen so far?

The first two races were sailed in different conditions that appeared to highlight the basic differences between the two boats. While SUI100 appeared to hobby horse upwind more than the Kiwi boat, she never seemed to lack pace and more worryingly for the Kiwis, height. In both races, 5 minutes after the start SUI100 was climbing like a demon without appearing to lose speed. High and fast is a daunting prospect when you’re trying to defend a slim lead.

Downwind in a breeze, Alinghi’s bulbous boat looked good as well, surfing readily in the stronger conditions on the first day. On race two she seemed less advantaged downwind in the flat water.

Such a comprehensive performance, both upwind and downwind, certainly make her an impressively fast boat around the track, but she appears to have an Achilles heel when it comes to altering course, particularly in tacks and gybes where helmsman Ed Baird is forced to steer SUI100 through some pretty big angles to keep her moving. This could be a keel fin and rudder foil issue where perhaps a slender section or a short chord length on the foil make her tricky.

Whatever the issue, there were several occasions during the two races that seemed to support such a view.

In the last few seconds before the start of race two, Baird, having escaped the clutches of the Kiwis, bore away down the start line to build speed before bringing the bow up to hit the line at pace and on time. Yet this didn’t happen. Instead, SUI100 seemed to hesitate and struggle to build speed, forcing Baird to keep the bow down, resulting in her being three seconds late on the line.

Upwind the big angles that her bow went through after each tack appeared to provide further evidence that she has to be worked hard through the breeze. The same appeared true on the downwind leg where Baird gybed her through bigger angles than the Kiwis, only bearing off onto her optimum course once the speed had built.

But the biggest clue was the failed lee bow manoeuvre two-thirds of the way up the second beat. Alinghi, having lost most of their lead, tried to make a lee bow tack stick. With SUI100 and NZL 92 converging, and Alinghi on starboard tack, the Swiss team elected to tack underneath the Kiwi boat. It’s a position the team is comfortable with, having squeezed the Kiwis off shortly after the start in both races to date. But in this case, it didn’t work.

“When we came back together again they were coming into a really good left hand shift in pressure. We just didn’t quite put the boat in the right place,” admitted Alinghi skipper and tactician Brad Butterworth. “We should have just pushed the tack a little closer and life would have been a bit easier, but as it was they did a great job of coming in at a good moment and ramped off us and held us out to the layline and that was the end.”

To be fair, the Kiwis were aided by a left hand shift which allowed them to stay clear of the dirty air on the windward hip of Alinghi.

So can the Kiwi boat stand up for herself?

While it’s great to see a 1:1 score in an event that has a long history of being one-sided from the start, there are concerns as to whether NZL92 has the speed or the gears to get ahead and stay there. Certainly the Kiwis are good at playing a defensive game and their flawless crew work allow them to sail at close quarters with great confidence. Be it the pre-start or tight mark roundings, Barker puts the boat precisely where it needs to be and has the full back up of his crew, they are an impressive package to watch.

But there’s an uneasy feeling around the dockside among those who’ve been watching closely that the Kiwis need a little extra horsepower. Some suggest that changing the wings on the keel bulb could help. The trouble is that these are already at maximum span, (maximum beam of the boat under the rules), so changing the angle of attack would be the next option. This could provide more lift upwind, but more drag downwind. Trading one for the other would be a bold call and yet getting the first cross and rounding the windward mark ahead appears to be crucial.

Overall, Alinghi does appear to hold more boat speed cards, while NZL92 is a shade slower but has fewer vices. Interestingly, the pair seem to overlap in their performance in the 9-11 knot range, which at this stage, is where the weather looks like settling down at for the next two days.

Throw a light north easterly into the equation for Tuesday to stir up the developing sea breeze and it looks like we’ll have perfect conditions for more close racing and some snakes and ladders.

But, aside from the technical aspects of the two boats, the starkest difference is that of the teams’ approach to the Cup. Alinghi appears to have placed its faith in a fast boat, the Kiwis in being good at everything and making no mistakes, but with less of a speed edge.

If the Kiwis can keep close and so far it appears that they can, a 20 second delta is close enough to trade a slip up or a penalty on the leading boat for a win.


Alinghi – 1

Emirates Team New Zealand – 1

Related/previous features:

Even or Over? 

Great Expectations at the America’s Cup 

Temperature Rising at America’s Cup 


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