Topsy-turvy in Trapani

Even America’s Cup purists longing for Thames St. ambiance, skirts on keels, and national crews would have loved this one. The final day of Act 8 in Trapani, Sicily, was anything but predictable. Tacticians went from heroes to zeroes in a single shift. Rock-solid teams, like the sailors on Alinghi intending to protect their sterling match-racing record and win another Act, suddenly were vulnerable to all comers. Even media and spectators were out of sorts, running around in search of answers to the pressing questions of the day: is a four-way tie—between Alinghi, Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa, and BMW Oracle Racing—possible after 11 flights of races? And how do you break it?

Answer number one is an affirmative: America’s Cup racing circa 2005 is very competitive at the top. Each of these syndicates has squeezed every ounce of speed from their 2003-vintage ACC racers. The shorter racetrack and number of legs are also leading to tighter races and more opportunities to win—or upset. Throw in trying tactical conditions, and anything can happen.

The tie-breaker went to the Swiss defender, Alinghi, which was helmed by American Ed Baird. But put an asterisk next to it. They backed into victory after dropping two straight—first to the surprising K-Challenge, which had a big day to leap into fifth overall, and then BMW Oracle. The loss to the French was the defender’s first loss in 31 matches.

“Today was a beautiful day to be a skipper,” said BMW Oracle helmsman Chris Dickson. “I was thinking, drive the boat fast and good luck, guys. It was a tough day to be a tactician. There were big shifts and big pressure differences. And when both went your way you were famous. Sometimes you got the elevator and sometimes you got the shaft.”

Dickson’s newly configured afterguard of navigator Peter Isler, strategist Eric Doyle, and tactician Bertrand Pace scrapped their way back into their race against Luna Rossa, after trailing by eight boatlengths, only to give the lead back to the Italians on the final run. In their final-race showdown against Alinghi, BMW’s brains negotiated the course’s offerings of pressure and shifts to build a lead for good. However, they would have to settle for the satisfaction of finally beating the defender in a match race, because the tie-breaker put them in fourth overall; their losses to Luna Rossa and Team New Zealand—in the race of the regatta, which the Kiwis won by less than a length—made the difference.

Sicilian Cup fans were abuzz about Luna Rossa, which looked fast and smart while defeating BMW Oracle Racing and putting themselves in a position to win the event. The Kiwis, however, spoiled the party. That race was a tactician’s match, a face-off between two former U.S. college sailing stars—Terry Hutchinson on Team New Zealand and Andy Horton on Luna Rossa—in conditions that rewarded the seat-of-the-pants approach that college sailing teaches on its small racecourses. “It was the Charles River,” quipped Hutchinson, referring to his old, notoriously shifty, college-sailing venue in Boston. He was good in his college days, and he was good at Trapani, where his team shut the door on Luna Rossa in the final match, went 2-0 on the day, and landed in second overall on the tie-breaker.

“It was hard to be in the lead,” said Hutchinson, “Impossible to defend. We were 0 for 2 on first crosses, but give us high marks for the rest of the races. A good day, but fun isn’t a word I’d used to describe it.” Josh Adams

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