Two things happened to turn the tables on the America’s Cup racecourse in Valencia on Sunday. First, the breeze lightened slightly compared to the first day, and second, the formerly unstoppable Alinghi juggernaut finally blinked. The result was a 28-second victory for Emirates New Zealand.
In the last three America’s Cup matches (1995, 2000, and 2003), the core team of Russell Coutts, Brad Butterworth, Warwick Fleury, Dean Phipps, Simon Daubney, and Murray Jones had not lost a race. However, with Coutts no longer art of the team and only one more win to their credit, the group’s string of consecutive victories came to an abrupt end at 16.
But it didn’t start out that way. In about 11 knots of wind, Alinghi was even stronger on the first upwind leg than on Saturday. Even though New Zealand’s Dean Barker and Terry Hutchinson nailed the start at the committee boat end with excellent speed and a 3 second jump, after only four minutes, Alinghi asserted its upwind speed and forced New Zealand to tack away. Alinghi may have benefited from a lefthand shift as well, but unmistakably, the Swiss boat was going better to windward. They also did only 7 tacks to the Kiwis 9, which contributed perhaps half of the 19-second lead that Ed Baird and Brad Butterworth held at the weather mark.
Downwind, Alinghi led initially by 90 meters, but after skipper Brad Butterworth made the call to jibe to starboard, the Kiwis were able to sail down the right side of the leg on their own and made a small gain. Approaching the gate marks, the challenger ended up making a smoother entry to the right-hand mark and headed right while Alinghi took the left and then had to tack to cover. At the post-race press conference, Butterworth said it was a tough day to be in the lead, both upwind and down, because the wind was not the typical seabreeze where the right always gets stronger late in the day. As the boats started sailing to windward again, the breeze also eased off slightly, and New Zealand had cut Alinghi’s lead in half by the time they tacked. Alinghi crossed ahead of New Zealand to protect the right side of the course, and the New Zealand challenger then found a good windshift to close the gap more. According to New Zealand strategist Ray Davies, “It was the biggest lefthand shift of the day, and right when we needed it.
As the boat’s came to cross, Alinghi tacked ahead to cover, but a little too far to leeward to hold off New Zealand, which surged into a narrow lead on Alinghi’s windward side. Butterworth admitted, “Maybe we should have pushed our tack a little closer.” Suddenly the Swiss boat was pinned, unable to tack back to starboard until New Zealand carried them slightly past the layline, at which point the Kiwis surged ahead by 15 seconds at the windward mark. This translated to a 75-meter lead downwind, and although Alinghi jibed to the left several times, each time the two boats came back together, New Zealand’s lead was slightly more. By the finish, New Zealand had a lead of 28 seconds.
Both teams are still claiming that the boats are pretty even in speed. To my eye, Alinghi still looks faster, until the breeze drops down to 10 knots or lower, when the New Zealand boat may be even or have a small edge. Certainly downwind the Kiwis seemed much better today than yesterday against the Swiss.
Davies said, “It’s a huge boost to go into a day off with a win,” and added, “It’s been a long time coming.” Alinghi still looks technically stronger and may yet be the dominant boat for the rest of the series; but the open question is whether today’s mental error by its afterguard could signal any further potential weakness.
After a lay day on Monday, the best of five series continues on Tuesday.