It was the best of times, but it was also nearly the worst of times—as we very nearly witnessed our first fatality in the throes of actual Cup competition See video. Nonetheless, if the first weekend of America’s Cup qualifying racing is any indication, AC35 is going to be one hell of an event.
First that near fatality: It was the pre-start of the last race of Day 1, and Britain’s Land Rover BAR was to windward of Softbank Team Japan when Japan seemed to luff up a bit at the same time Sir Ben Ainslie and company seemed to launch up onto the very top of their foils and slide to leeward. Next thing anyone knew, the British were crashing down onto the Japanese team, leaving a 6ft crack in their own hull and smashing the wheel Japan’s helmsman, Kiwi Dean Barker, and been using to steer his boat just moments earlier.
Worse yet, as it came crashing up against the Japanese boat, the Brit’s leeward hull also went rearing up until it was above the heads of the grinders as it came rushing inboard—all in a matter of mere seconds. Whether it was the daggerboards or the bow-down, stern-up orientation of leeward boat, something stopped the Brits from sweeping Japan’s cockpit clean and possibly crushing the crew in the process.
There was something almost pathetic about seeing the forward-most member of Japan’s crew trying to fend off with an upheld arm—the equivalent of putting up your hands to ward off the impact of an oncoming Mac truck. If the hull had come inboard only a few feet more, all the body armor in the world wouldn’t have done the hapless crew a lick of good.
“It was a little bit of a hairy moment seeing their leeward hull landing on our boat,” Barker said afterward, in what has got to be one of the greatest understatements in Cup history. “Both boats have damage, it hit all the guys, but doesn’t seem anyone is too badly injured…. We saw an ugly big black hull coming toward the side of the boat. One of our grinder pedestal handles went through the side of their boat. There was a bit of damage to us but we can sort it for tomorrow.”
Hopefully, the teams all learned a lesson there. Close racing, capsizes and the odd fender-bender are one thing. The very idea of someone actually being killed during an inshore race in moderate conditions is utterly ridiculous. For those of you in search of blood sport, go watch boxing or professional football. This is still supposed to be sailing.
Day 1 Recap video
On a more positive note, the racing has proved to be even closer than the most ardent of pundits could have ever hoped for. Lead changes were in evidence everywhere, and each and every team showed that on any given day it was fully capable of winning a race. Even the French who have been hampered from the outset by a limited budget and Land Rover BAR, which has been rumored to have a slow boat, racked up their share of wins.
As expected (and, again, hoped for) the margin of error is so exceedingly slim that a single bad tack, a single bad tactical decision or a single instance of allowing a boat to drop off its foils—as happened to Softbank Team Japan on the second day racing against Emirates Team New Zealand—is enough to not only blow an otherwise comfortable lead but lose the race.
After three days of competition, Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand both have 4 wins and 1 loss. Land Rover BAR has just 1 win and 4 losses, and Artemis Racing, Softbank Team Japan and Groupama Team France all have 2 wins and 3 losses apiece.
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Day 2 Recap video
Overall, it seems like ETNZ has good all-around boatspeed (thanks, it appears, in no small part to its stationary-bike-style grinders, which provide up to 40 percent more hydraulic power for the helmsman and trimmer to play with) and will be tough to beat—assuming it doesn’t make too many mistakes, like it did when it allowed Oracle Team USA to get an overlap at the leeward mark midway through their race on Day 1.
Similarly, Artemis racing and Softbank Team Japan are also moving through the water well, although they seem to sometimes have trouble executing their gybes and tacks smoothly, especially when the pressure is on. As for the French, the indomitable Franck Cammas just seems to be able to find a way to win, even when having to come from behind the way he did against Land Rover BAR on Day 1. Never forget the way he came from behind to win the Volvo Ocean Race back in 2011-12. The guy just seems to hate not being first!
Bottom line: Despite months of preparation, all six teams are clearly still very much climbing their respective learning curves, and it can honestly be said that that qualifier, at least, are still very much anybody’s regatta. One thing that’s for damn sure: if Oracle Team USA wasn’t taking part in the qualifiers (a first in America’s Cup competition) they wouldn’t have stood a chance come the AC35 finals in June.
As it is, the mere fact that the Defender will be dropping from the final rounds of the qualifying series may put it at a disadvantage. The racing is that close, and sailing these boat the way they need to be sailed to win remains that much of a challenge. For a summary of each day’s racing, click on the links below.
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Day 3 Recap video
Racing resumes today, with the first eliminations scheduled for as soon as June 3. For a complete schedule of America’s Cup racing, click here.