Luna Rossa and Emirates Team New Zealand square up for the first match of the Louis Vuitton finals. Matthew Sheahan was there

 When Emirates Team New Zealand’s tactician Terry Hutchinson explained on the eve of the finals, why his team prefer tight racing to a comfortable lead, it’s difficult to imagine that he was thinking of a race quite this close. For the opening match of the Louis Vuitton finals the delta was never any greater than 12 seconds and frequently far smaller.

Whichever way you looked at it, today’s race between the Kiwis and Luna Rossa was as tight as they come and every bit as close as everyone expected. Gains and losses were quantified in single seconds at the mark roundings. Yet in between, the advantage to the Kiwis stretched to 70m before contracting to 10m, highlighting the level of competition between these boats as well as the potential for tripping up and letting the eager Italians through.

In the end it was the Kiwis who crossed the line 8 seconds ahead. Both had sailed an impressive race, but the Kiwis’ had been clinical and flawless and deserved their win.

“It was pretty dangerous most of the way round; I don’t think there was any time when we felt comfortable,” explained the Kiwis’ strategist Ray Davies at the press conference after the race. 

“We had to defend pretty hard and we took quite a loss on the second beat, had a narrow lead at the top and on the last run, Prada [Luna Rossa] had a pretty strong position behind us. There were some nervous moments there where they could have got some breeze that we couldn’t have done anything about; it would have been out of our control. But we were able to the hold pressure in front of them and keep our air until the finish.”

But the Kiwi performance and the improvements this team appear to have made were on show well before the boats had crossed the start line.

Coming in from the left hand side at the start and getting to the right, (assuming that was the side they wanted), was never going to be easy against Spithill. But Barker and his crew pulled off a perfect pre-start performance, got to the side they wanted and, with less than a minute to go, managed to resist Spithill’s attempt to close the match up between the pair. Furthermore, the Kiwis seem to have addressed another of their potential weaknesses, the apparent lack of acceleration. Today NZL-92 had legs.

On the downwind legs, while there were no gybing duels the racing was close and exciting with the Italians chasing the Kiwis, nipping at their heels like a Border Collie herding a stray sheep. On the run, Spithill’s crew can sail high, they can sail low, they can throw in a clean gybe before you’ve finished thinking about it and they have the confidence and nerve to split away too. Keeping them at bay was tough work for Barker and his crew.

The finish was a thriller with Luna Rossa keeping the pressure on to the last few metres, while the Kiwis demonstrated perfect timing and perfect crew work to pull off a gybe just metres from the line.

A good day for New Zealand and an important result. As BMW Oracle now know to their cost, give the Italians an inch and they’ll steal a win. Give them two and they’re off on a roll. The Kiwis have completed the first part of their plan. So far so good? Maybe not.

What must surely be of a concern is Luna Rossa’s ability to keep the racing so close from the wrong side of the beat. ITA-94 is a quick boat upwind and downwind and shows few vices in tight situations.

To be fair the Kiwis had said all along that their opponents would be tough ones to beat. So how was the mood on the boat as they went out to the start?

“We were really keen to get into it,” explained runner man Tony Rae shortly after the race. “It’s a big regatta and we know it’s going to be close, it was hard just before the start with the breeze up, having to make a call on sails, and there was a little scramble with the breeze, but once we had it settled, we were away.

“Everyone is a little on edge in the first race, ‘it’s like the first beer, after you get the first one down, the second is a lot easier, isn’t it? ”

At that point he’d lost me, but I guess I wasn’t the one under stress.

Related/previous features:

America’s Cup Match Preview? 
America’s Cup Shopping Spree Starts 
America’s Cup Double Whammy 
Dickson Off America’s Cup Boat 
America’s Cup Confidence Trick 
Wheels Coming Off America’s Cup Dream? 


Emirates Team New Zealand – 1

Luna Rossa – 0


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