Shifts and gusts, snakes and ladders, a lively opening to the Louis Vuitton semi finals. Matthew Sheahan reports

 Despite some of the most challenging conditions we’ve seen since racing began on 3 April, the opening match of the semi finals saw two worthy winners put points on the board in two very different styles.

The first match to get underway was that between BMW Oracle Racing and Luna Rossa. The pre-start action took the pair deep into the spectator fleet, (the biggest we’ve seen to date), as Dickson came in from the left hand side and cruised cleanly across the bow of Luna Rossa. I’ve lost count of how many times he’s managed this. Sure, there was a right hand shift in the breeze, but, as the second starting pair demonstrated, not enough to make this an obvious and easy move. Despite sailing deep on their entry, the Kiwis could do the same to the Spanish.

Having got to the right, Dickson fought hard to keep it and despite appearing to stall out, (once again), when the pair was tussling in the right hand corner of the box, BMW Oracle came off the line on the right end and at speed. Job done you might think.

The Kiwis certainly did. According to their strategist Ray Davies as they watched the pair sail out to the left hand side of the course with Oracle sitting to the right of Luna Rossa, someone said to Dean, ‘If you get set us up for that we’d be pretty happy.’

But as the first pair got further out towards the right hand side the breeze started to go left, allowing Luna Rossa to tack onto port and cross Dickson’s bow. From here there were a few more tacks but the net result was that Luna Rossa rounded the weather mark 52 seconds ahead of BMW Oracle. A healthy lead and, given their lower ranking, a lead that you might expect them to defend jealously.

Yet tactician Torben Grael was on a roll and the team gybed and split from Dickson who rounded the mark and put their bow down into a decent finger of right hand shifted breeze. By the time both boats came back together, Dickson was right on the tail of Luna Rossa, forcing the Italians out towards the left hand lay line. An aggressive luffing match ensued, pressing the boats to gear breaking heel angles. At any minute something would pop. But it didn’t and Spithill did a superb job of holding off the aggressor, gybing twice into the left hand leeward mark and taking the left hand side of the beat. Superb crew work under extreme pressure to round 7 seconds ahead.

Meanwhile Dickson took the right hand of the two buoys but, instead of flopping over onto starboard to follow Spithill out to the left, a move that would have kept them closely in touch and taken them towards what appeared to be more breeze on the same side, took what appeared to be a gamble and headed out onto the right. A tactic that cost them dearly.

Whatever the logic, this was the second time in a row that BMW Oracle had put all its confidence in one corner and it was the second time it had paid the price. At the weather mark, Luna Rossa was 1min 21sec ahead or, as tactician Peter Isler put it, Oracle was 18 boat lengths behind.

But still the drama wasn’t over. On the downwind leg, Torben Grael, who had Luna Rossa boss Patrizio Bertelli breathing down his neck as 18th man, decided to play things more conservatively on the run to the finish and covered their position. He did a good job and held the advantage to the line, just before the sea breeze came in as if someone had opened a door at the wrong end of the course. Dickson and his crew were forced to bear away hard to go with the shift to stand any chance of making the line. Any more and they would have had to beat to the finish. Which, as it happens, is precisely what fell to the Kiwis and the Spanish. More on that in a minute.

“One thing that was clear was that it was a very shifty day and that you would have to connect the shifts with the puffs and that the left wasn’t always going to be right,” said Isler after the race. “It was probably a day when you throw away some of your classic match racing tactics and open up your eyes.”

After two consecutive losses with big margins and bold calls behind them, how was the mood in the camp?

“The mood is good,” continued Isler. “Two tough races against two good opponents and two losses, but as Larry said after he got off the boat today, ‘it’s a long series guys.’

“We feel really good about our boat speed, our boat handling our tactics, weather team, there are no really big changes. It was fortunate for Luna Rossa that the left hand shift came to them before the lay line rather than after it. Nobody’s looking around over their shoulder.”

The Kiwis, on the other hand, spent the whole of the race looking over theirs.

In a tight pre-start against the Spanish, both teams put on a great display of strengths, the Spanish kept things tight and the Kiwis kept their nerve to take the windward end of the line, at pace and on time. Their confident performance continued throughout the race where they used the muscle of their boat, the experience of their after guard and the dexterity of their crew to sail another polished race, while all the time keeping a close cover on their opponents. A completely different approach to the match in front.

While the Kiwis never let the Spanish out of their sight, the Spanish never stopped trying to get out of their grip.

“We have extraordinary confidence in our boat speed and in also in our crew manoeuvres,” explained Desafio Espanol’s navigator Matt Wachowich. “We may not be the most consistent team out there but we know that when we sail well we can over achieve in both those these areas. So our methodology is that if we get behind we are going to stay close and wait for the opportunity to pass.”

Precisely what they did, keeping in touch and at times reducing the delta. Even as the breeze switched through almost 180 degrees on the last downwind leg and kites had to be replaced by headsails just a few hundred metres from the line, the Spanish were still on the case. With both boats having to tack for the line, this was more Cowes Week than Cup week, but the Spanish still refused to give up.

In the end a loss is a loss, but we could not have had two more extreme demonstrations of how to get the same result.

But, whatever your take on the day’s sailing, to see real racing in shifty conditions was a breath of fresh air from the clinical conditions that often dominate Cup racing. Today’s race was a sailor’s race, just like the rest of us have. Such conditions might not help to develop the strongest Challenger but when it comes to spectators, it’s great to see how the pros cope.

After today, I doubt there was a single person aboard the spectator boats that will be asking for their money back. I’m not sure the same could be true for some of the big boys based in the harbour.


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