Emirates Team New Zealand and Alinghi go head to head in a 'friendly'. Matthew Sheahan reports from the water
If it’s real action that they are after, the Kiwis are running out of teams to race against. With BMW Oracle Racing and the Spanish now out, there are only two teams left in the basin to square up against – one of which has little incentive to line up against the Kiwis until absolutely necessary.
So, today the Kiwis raced Alinghi in an unofficial set of two matches. There were no results, no points and no press conference afterwards, but the racing was for real. Race officer Harold Bennett set a start line and a course, the umpires policed the game and the spectators that had stumbled across the racing, caught sight of what might be the story of the season should these two meet up in three weeks for the America’s Cup proper.
Indeed, the only thing that made this ‘friendly’ feel any different from a normal Cup match was our proximity to the race boats throughout the match. In our RIB just metres away from the pair we were able to watch the action close up and first hand throughout the racing.
The wind started at 9 knots from 090. If the conditions were to pan out as forecast, the day would see classic sea breeze conditions and the wind would increase and shift to the right.
With this in mind Barker and his crew who came in from the right, protected the right and, following a fairly tame pre-start, kept the right as the start gun fired. Half way up the beat the breeze had indeed slipped right, indeed so much so that the course was re-aligned for the downwind leg.
So, with Emirates Team New Zealand making all the right moves they rounded ahead? No.
With the breeze trucking right, Alinghi pushed the Kiwis out past the starboard hand layline and rounded the weather mark 20 seconds ahead. The downwind leg simply extended this lead to 26 seconds and after short spell on the second beat, the Kiwis bailed out and the boats returned to the start line.
Mission accomplished for the Swiss.
The second pre-start saw the Swiss come on from the right, a move that they managed to make a bit of a mess of by entering too late, allowing the Kiwis to cross their bows and to gain the right hand side. Good work, at least to start with.
At two minutes to go, Alinghi had the right hand side once again but the advantage was short lived. As the boats advanced towards the line it was clear that the breeze had shifted even further right and with a minute to go the AP was raised and the start abandoned.
In start number three the breeze had shifted to 130 degrees and increased to 12-14 knots. As the two boats entered the box and began their dial up Kiwis came in with enough pace to roll over the bows of Alinghi and get to the right once again. More good work. Barker and his crew held their nerve and held their ground keeping the right hand side of the line and holding this side of the course all the way up the beat.
They rounded just 8 seconds ahead.
By the bottom mark, Alinghi had gained on the Kiwis, took the right hand mark of the pair and within a few minutes had overtaken Emirates Team New Zealand on the second beat. Shortly afterwards both boats bailed. Mission accomplished for the Swiss once again.
Or was it?
From watching the boats close up there was little doubt that Alinghi, who were understood to be sailing SUI91, has speed but lacks poise. Compared to the Kiwis their sail handling wasn’t as slick as Barker’s crew with a dusty leeward drop and some shaky gybes.
The Kiwis on the other hand looked slick and professional in their manoeuvres, but lacked pace.
So why would either team want to reveal their strengths and weaknesses to each other?
The Kiwis have admitted during the last few weeks that their starts need to be improved. In house racing is all very well but, at this level it’s often not a good enough match for an ‘A’ team that has been up against real opponents in real situations. Facing the best makes sense, especially before the Louis Vuitton Final where the Kiwis will have to square up to the ruthless James Spithill aboard Luna Rossa.
The Swiss are confident with their boat speed and it would appear with good reason. In fact, the talk among certain dockside areas is that the Swiss are very confident that their second boat SUI100 is significantly quicker than SUI91 – a worrying thought for any team that is having trouble beating the ‘old’ boat.
Where Alinghi appears to have a potential weakness at present is in it’s boat handling. Early April was the last time that the Swiss faced any other team and even then it was in fleet racing – not the same at all. Since then the Challengers have improved substantially when it comes to turning corners and dealing with any curved balls that their opponents might hurl at them. Emulating this in-house is not as easy as it might seem. The Swiss need the practice.
Today gave them some, but at the same time illustrated how strong they are when it comes to brains and boat speed.
With Ed Baird at the wheel aboard SUI91 and facing Barker sailing the older of the two boats, NZL84, (why would you risk your best boat two days before the finals), the Swiss looked capable of a clean sweep. But that’s assuming it’s the Kiwis and not Luna Rossa that makes it to the Cup.
On Friday the first step towards revealing the Challenger will be taken as the Louis Vuitton finals get under way. No one expects a clean sweep here.
LOUIS VUITTON FINALS START FRIDAY 1 JUNE
Emirates Team New Zealand v Luna Rossa
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