America's Cup: A Bang Up Start

The opening races of the Louis Vuitton Cup Round Robins give us plenty to talk about, but what everyone's talking about is Ben's big bang.

America's Cup
Oracle Team USA got off the start on top of Emirates Team New Zealand, but the Kiwis later got ahead, and then fell victim to a Defender luff at the final weather gate.Giles Martin Raget/ACEA

Where to begin on this wild first day of the Louis Vuitton Challenger Series’ Qualifying races?

Oracle Team USA’s shellacking of Groupama Team France in the first race? Nope. Everyone saw that coming.

Artemis’ upwind end-around of SoftBank Team Japan in Race 2? Meh. But it was good to see upwind tacking duels return to the game.

Emirates Team New Zealand’s flawless 2:33 shut out of the French. Predictable. But boy, oh boy, do the Kiwis look smooth.

Land Rover BAR’s stunner of a race against Artemis? Maybe. At least it squashed the pre-regatta story line. They were uncharacteristically fast when they got ahead and worked the shifts and the boathandling was notably better than in practice races.

Oracle Team USA stuffing New Zealand at the final weather gate to snatch the lead? That was exciting.

Land Rover BAR impaling its port hull on one of Softbank Team Japan’s grinding pedestal and tearing a gaping hole in its hull? Yes, indeed, that’s where the day ended, but that’s where we’ll begin.

In the closing seconds of the pre-start, Ainslie was sitting shy of the layline for the pin (as he later explained in the press conference) and once Dean Barker came tearing in to sink a deep hook there was nothing he could do but hesitate. And he did. He waited to luff, as he is required to do so under the rules, and suddenly the boat rose up on its foils and side-skid, landing atop SoftBank’s starboard hull.

A few of SoftBank’s grinders, and even Mr. Barker himself, ducked to avoid getting crushed by Land Rover’s big black hull. Scary stuff, says Barker. It would later be revealed that a grinder pedestal handle pierced the hull and then tore a gaping hole toward the transom. Carbon tapes dangled in the wind as Land Rover foiled around the rest of the racecourse unaware of the damage.

As for SoftBank, tactician Chris Draper reported some bruises, possible compression damage to their starboard hull, as well as a damaged fairing. In the post-race press conference, Barker reported damage to his wheel. But team sources say they have plenty of spares. It’s delicate electronics on the pedestal they’re concerned about.

Spare hulls, Ben Ainslie does not have, however, and given the visible extent of the damage to both core and skin, an overnight repair may well be a miracle, especially if there’s further structural damage. Then, of course, there’s the damage to Sir Ben’s already fragile ego. Already lambasted in Cup circles for inflicting damage to Emirates Team New Zealand, a new nickname, “Bumper Boat Ben” is already making the rounds.

While rubbing is racing, the collision did send collective gasps across the America’s Cup organization. While no one was injured, it could’ve been much worse. Those listening closely to the official broadcast when they patched in Chief Umpire Richard Slater for commentary, could hear him say on a hot mic, “…Jesus Christ.” No doubt he was watching the onboard footage at the time, well aware of what could’ve been.

For Ainslie’s part, he did his best to compose himself at the skipper’s meeting, knowing full well the question was coming in hot.

“Yeah…our boat is pretty badly damaged,” he said looking down longingly at the table. “It’s got a sizeable hole. We foiled all the way into the harbor, and we were lucky we did because by the time we got to the dock it was on the way down. It was all hands on the pumps and bailers.”

Whether the shore team’s overnight capacity can get them back on the water will be seen, but tomorrow they’re second on the race schedule against Oracle Team USA and then face Team New Zealand shortly thereafter.

Perhaps…just perhaps, the wise move might be to forfeit those races, which would essentially wash away the 2-point bonus they came in with from winning the America’s Cup World Series. Who knew? Those points might just come in handy. Just not how they thought they would.

America's Cup
All eyes were on Oracle Team USA and Team New Zealand in the opener between the previous challenger and the Cup defender.Giles Martin Raget/ACEA

So, back to the earlier races. As noted, Oracle Team USA’s trounce of Groupama Team France in the first race came as no surprise. On both the broadcast and from the water, it’s easy to see that the French are challenged with controlling their boat, and not just in the turns. Costly “plunges” on Leg 1 in each of the races is an indication they’ve got serious issues.

As for Mr. Spithill and his charges, they were sloppy in their maneuvers, too, especially considering they a race track virtually to themselves. Spithill, as expected, acknowledged that the team was not happy with the performance. Having tactician Tom Slingsby occasionally stepping into a cycle pedestal behind the skipper from time to time (downwind, it seemed, and perhaps primarily to help top off the pressure tank). It’s early days yet in this arrangement, said Mr. Spithill, but they like what they’re seeing already.

After Oracle’s drubbing of the French, the Artemis Racing Team and SoftBank match appeared to be following the same theme, with SoftBank taking a strong early lead. But Artemis, clearly confident in their boathandling, wasted no time in engaging Mr. Barker in the regatta’s first real tacking duel. Skipper Nathan Outteridge later described his tactics as, “keeping it close.”

Tack by tack, split by split, Artemis reduced SoftBank’s advantage. At the top of Leg 5, SoftBank tripped up with a bad covering tack and once they were forced to tack away, it was done. Artemis led around Gate 5 with a 19-second lead and sailed on into the finish to put its first check in the win column.

Emirates Team New Zealand followed by giving pre-start clinic to Groupama Team France, and with and open racecourse to put the pedals to the metal, they sailed a nearly flawless lap of the course. What was most revealing was the boat's stability through every turn, as well as in the straightaways. Granted, Mr. Burling was never challenged, but he looked as if he were out for a Sunday drive on his AC50, hands 10 and 12 on the carbon wheel, barely breaking a sweat. That race delta? Repeat: 2 minutes and 33 seconds. Any more legs and they would have been lapping the poor Frenchmen.

While everything was to form to this point, the crowd at the America’s Cup spectators finally got their first look at Land Rover BAR in a real race. The butt of jokes up until this point, the question had to be asked? Had they been sandbagging the practice races?

Maybe.

Once they jumped ahead off the start and onto Leg 1, pegging 38 knots at one point, they looked incredibly smooth and fast, rifling off a series of perfect jibes and extending with each. Artemis went for the split at the first leeward gate, just as they’d done with SoftBank earlier, but BAR’s solid boathandling remained. They almost—repeat almost—sailed the entire race on foils. With a comfortable lead around the track, they crossed the line first with Ainslie commenting, “Proper job, boys.”

Indeed.

America's Cup
Groupama Team France continued to struggle with its stability. As they say in Bermuda, if you're not foiling, you're getting passed.Ricardo Pinto/ACEA

If it weren’t for Sir Ainslie’s dust up in the final race to follow, the talk of the day would surely have been the much anticipated rematch between Oracle Team USA and Emirates Team New Zealand.

Oracle won the start, but they were only 2 seconds apart at Mark 1. “Nothing in it,” people around here like to say (and they say it a lot). Oracle was sloppy in its boathandling for most of the race, allowing the New Zealanders to keep it close and eventually get past, rounding Gate 3 ahead by 20 seconds. On form and flying through every maneuver, the Kiwis looked to have this one in the bag.

Twenty seconds was the difference at the next turn, but then came the split, which eventually brought the Americans from 300 meters to within spitting distance. With a windshift near the top of the course, Oracle was right back into it with a perfect layline call into Gate 5. They tucked into leeward of the New Zealanders as they tried to round the left-hand mark, luffed them twice (with no penalty given to the Kiwis) before bearing away and leaving the them reeling with no way back.

Minutes later, the race committee was firing off Race 6, and before anyone could blink, Mr. Barker was setting his hook in to the big British fish, which took the bait and paid dearly. What more could the second day of these Round Robins possibly bring. After today, who the hell knows?