The speculation and dockside chatter is gathering pace as the first race of the America's Cup draws closer. Matthew Sheahan reports
Mid June and the temperature is rising around the Darsena. With just three days to go, you can feel the pressure building. Clearly the main topic of conversation surrounds who between Alinghi and Emirates Team New Zealand will win. Here, Alinghi remain the favourites and yet there are signs that things might not be as straightforward for the Swiss team as their dominance over the last two years might have previously suggested.
The speculation as to who will steer their boat seems to be falling more in favour of Ed Baird, even though the team continues to state that the helmsman for the Cup match will not be announced until Friday, the day before the event starts. What has been announced is that whoever is steering will be at the wheel of SUI100, Alinghi’s second and newest boat.
Here the rumours that their latest weapon is so potent that they’re almost embarrassed, seem to be coming in from all angles, with talk of loose tongues close to the very heart of the team confiding in any number of ‘friends of a friend’. The cynical view is that such propaganda could have been leaked by the team themselves as a way of unsettling the opposition. Yet there are other signs that suggest that the Alinghi we see this time is not the confident, modest and organised operation that we witnessed in Auckland. Instead, a more rattled atmosphere surrounds the team.
The latest evidence to support this concerns the current spat over the moving of topmast backstays. Earlier this week Alinghi protested the measurement committee over a ruling that the body had made, ‘an unauthorised amendment to the America’s Cup Class Rule.’
After a lengthy hearing, the Jury decided on a 3-2 vote that the Measurement Committee has exceeded its jurisdiction and upheld Alinghi’s application. On the face of it the issue has been dealt with and for whatever reason, Alinghi had succeeded. Yet the chat is that the discussions became heated with further rumblings going on behind closed doors.
The issue is another technically complicated one, but in essence the row was similar to that of Mascalzone Latino’s problems when the Italian team was penalized for detaching the topmast backstays and stowing them forward by the mast to reduce windage. The complications come when you try to interpret what’s behind several recent public rule interpretations to do with load bearing stays, methods of attachments and methods of adjustment in an attempt to decipher the thinking.
Whatever the outcome of this debate, what strikes some as odd is; a) why Alinghi feels so passionate about an apparently minor issue and b) why they are engaging in a heated debate this close to the Cup. Could this in some way be connected with the supreme confidence in SUI100 that the team is alleged to have? If the matter goes further could this force the team to change the way that they sail the boat and hence eat into the potential advantage?
In addition to this, talk of disgruntled team members, fewer apparent recent training days than the Kiwis, less than perfect boat handling and a surprising amount of broken gear, suggest that Alinghi is less of a well oiled machine than it was in 2002/3.
The Kiwis on the other hand, continue to keep their heads down, not wishing to be drawn into any mind games and debates that could prove to be a distraction from the task ahead. But if their opponents have a rocket ship, will a polished, confident and reliable performance be enough to wrestle the Auld Mug back?
On top of this, the weather could turn out to have the biggest influence over the result. Not everyone is convinced that the weird weather that played havoc with the early rounds of the Louis Vuitton Cup is truly behind us. Sure, there are sea breezes on many days, but the weather still feels more unstable and cooler than expected. Of those that have lived here in Valencia for the last two years or more, several have commented that they haven’t turned their air conditioning on yet. A glance further afield in northern Europe and there are signs that the weather hasn’t played ball as expected either.
If, as is commonly believed, Alinghi has a boat that is optimized for the mid teens in wind strength, how will they shape up against the Kiwi’s aboard a boat that appears to excel in the lighter breezes?
But for all the speculation, there are several issues that are closer to fact than fiction.
The ‘no-change’ period begins 24 hours before the first match, at 14:50 on Friday.
Racing is scheduled to begin with a warning signal at 14:50 each race day, as in the Louis Vuitton Cup Semi Finals and Final. No warning signal will be given later than 17:00 (an earlier cut off than during the Louis Vuitton Cup). All racing will be on the Northern race area.
As in the Louis Vuitton Cup, there are no ‘hard’ wind limits, but the Race Committee “intends to conduct races when the approximate average true wind speed is between seven and 23 knots?six metres above the water.”
The teams are permitted just one change that would require a new measurement certificate. This differs from the Louis Vuitton Cup, when more changes were allowed. Any change has to be completed by 08:00 on the day of the next scheduled race.
Either team is allowed to substitute its boat, but ONLY if its original race yacht has been damaged seriously enough that it can not compete in the next scheduled race. The Measurement Committee and Jury will determine this. And, if the Jury deems the damage intentional, it may not allow the substitution. This is more restrictive than during the Louis Vuitton Cup, when a boat could be substituted for any reason at the cost of one win.
The race course will be 12.6 nautical miles in length. This is the maximum length of the course in the Louis Vuitton Cup. The time limit for each leg of the course if 40 minutes.
As the first race of the America’s Cup draws closer, the dockside gossip, rumour and conjecture will increase to fever pitch and life in Valencia will get hotter for everyone in the next 48 hours.
Racing starts on Saturday 23 June with a warning signal at 14:50 local (1250 GMT)