36th America’s Cup: Initial Thoughts

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Highlights from the AC36 World Series and Christmas Race

Initial thoughts on the state of the 36th America’s Cup in the wake of the World Series regatta and “Christmas” race down in Auckland all pretty much come down to one thing: pray for wind.

On the plus side, following a handful of days of practice racing and a score of races as part of the World Series, it looks like the Prada Cup challenger elimination series, in particular, could result in some fun competition.

For example, presumably all four teams—INEOS Team UK, the Defender Emirates Team New Zealand, Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli Team and New York Yacht Club American Magic—were holding back a bit. But there was still definitely some good boat-to-boat action in a few of the pre-starts and a number of fun lead changes out on the course.

During a press conference following the Christmas Race on Saturday, Dec. 20, American Magic skipper Terry Hutchinson said he was impressed by how close the teams were given the fact they were all racing brand-new boats never before tested in the heat of battle, and he’s right, mostly.

The exception is INEOS Team UK, which despite having Sir Ben Ainslie, the most successful Olympic sailor of all time, at the helm is still both noticeably slower than the competition and having trouble with maneuvers. Those hoping for close racing might also be a bit concerned about ETNZ, which came out of the blocks fast, and seemed to only grow stronger with every start. It would be a shame if the finals become a cakewalk for the Defender, which made winning the one and only World Series of the current Cup cycle look pretty easy.

That said, Luna Rossa and American Magic were also both fast and nimble—and you can bet they, and INEOS UK, will only be all the faster when the Prada Cup begins in January. Unlike ETNZ, they also have the advantage of being tested in this same Prada Cup elimination series, which runs from January 15 to February 22, before sailing for the Cup itself.

Which brings us back to the question of wind. In short, it appears the boats need boatspeeds in the high teens, which in turn only requires about 8-9 knots of true wind to get foiling. But if and when that fails to happen, things can get ugly fast.

Case in point, the first race in the ultimately cancelled Christmas race between ETNZ and INEOS Team UK. In marginal conditions of around 9 knots, the Kiwis were able to get airborne as they should, but the British couldn’t, and what was supposed to be a race, quickly turned into a combination slaughter/farce.

“They’re not actually making any real progress. They’re just mowing the same bit of lawn over and over again. It’s so hard to watch them trying to foil,” commentator and two-time Olympic gold medalist Shirley Robertson said at one point. “I think Ben Ainslie is doing pretty well to keep his cool.”

The response from Robertson’s fellow commentators, Nathan Outteridge (another Olympian as well as an America’s Cup veteran) and North Sails president Ken Read? Deep sighs from Outteridge and groans of disappointment from Read as he began worrying INEOS was in danger of being lapped before even reaching the first mark.

Mercifully, the race committee not only shortened course, but when then wind dropped below 6 knots, the Kiwis couldn’t stay up on their foils either, and the race was thrown out after they failed to reach the finish line within the 45-minute time limit.

Up until then, though, “ugly” doesn’t begin to do justice to what the race had become. As impressive as the boats may be up on foils, they are equally pathetic in displacement mode. (Although Read observed at one point that displacement mode may be the one area in which INEOS actually holds a bit of an edge.)

So ridiculous had the “race” become as the time limit drew near, you could hear the two teams laughing over their comms about how ridiculous it all was. It was actually kind of fun hearing them acting like sailors and human beings again, as opposed to the machine-like pros so many of them now become whenever they get near a microphone. But if this kind of thing becomes a regular occurrence, it isn’t going to take long before the entire program starts to feel like a bit of a joke.

Then there was the first race between ETNZ and American Magic on Day 3. For the first couple of legs it was all good fun. Then American Magic dropped off its foils after sailing into a light spot, and it was game over, with helmsman Dean Barker having to bear away so aggressively to get airborne again he was briefly actually steering away from the next mark.

After that came a race between ETNZ and Luna Rossa in which, at one point, they both dropped into the water, and as Outteridge so aptly put it, it became a contest to see who could get back up onto their foils again. I get it. These boats are technological marvels and handling them is far beyond the abilities of mere mortals like yours truly. Still, such a contest hardly makes for riveting racing.

Bottom line, the old 12-Metres may have been “lead mines,” but they could also be just as much fun to watch, if not more so, in a drifter as when it was blowing stink. The danger with boats that have been purpose-built to not just foil but foil all the time is that when they stop doing so, the entire exercise quickly becomes pointless—not a pretty state of affairs for what is widely hailed as the pinnacle of the sport.

For the complete results and the latest on the 36th America’s Cup, click here

December 2020

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