America’s Cup: Fear and Loathing in Valencia Part II

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St. John Tradewinds News Photos by Nils Erickson

I expected to be writing an article on the Swiss dominance of the Cup. Everyone was. Alinghi are such a well-heeled juggernaut it was inconceivable the racing would be this close after five races — with the defender on top 3-2 after the fifth race. 

Editor’s Note: St. John sailor Nils Erickson, owner of the catamaran Soma in Cruz Bay, will be providing St. John Tradewinds with exclusive coverage of the 32nd America’s Cup in Valencia, Spain.

Something special is unfolding. The impossible is happening. New Zealand is playing the role of David to Alinghi’s Goliath. They are slaying the giant.  

Race One Ends Anticipation
On the day of the first race, the energy in the port was astounding. As the respective teams began their tow out, the horns of all the assembled yachts began blaring and each team’s anthem song was played at full volume. The whole drama, after four years of anticipation, was beginning.

We thought we knew how the story would play out.

Coming off of the start line, the Kiwis seemed to be in a strong position, bow forward with good speed. Just on their leeward hip was Alinghi, in what seemed a difficult position. Little by little, though, the Swiss crawled up to the Kiwis, eventually forcing the Kiwis to tack away. At the first weather mark the Swiss were leading and the boats raised the spinnakers.

The relative speed of the Swiss downwind was untouchable and they extended their lead. There was a sense of the inevitable, the Cup would be won in a 5-0 drubbing. The Swiss were smarter, faster, unbeatable. The Cup would remain in Europe.

Day two began with the Kiwis again out-sailing the Swiss in the pre-start, the all-important jockeying for position leading up to the start gun. At the gun it was a carbon copy of the previous days race, NZ to weather with good speed and on time. The Swiss seemed to be a tick slower, with quite a bit of separation between the boats.
But with astonishing quickness the Swiss had again crawled to weather, forcing the Kiwis to tack. So it goes.
Kiwis Come Back To Win

Then, on the second beat to weather, as the assembled press on the media boat began chatting, eating, smoking, no longer paying attention, the Kiwis played a few wind shifts to perfection and actually pulled ahead. Some brilliant tactics from the American Terry Hutchinson got the Kiwis around the top mark first.

On board the press boat we were all crowded around the TVs displaying the real time advantage line on the computer. History was being made. The Kiwis had improbably taken the lead.

From there, the Kiwis stretched out to a comfortable win. On the ride back into the port the entire stretch of waterfront was lined with Kiwis waving flags. As the NZ Cup boat was towed past us I couldn’t help but to applaud.

The NZ sailors folding the sails looked up and waved modestly, and suddenly the entire press boat erupted in raucous applause. We were witnesses to one of the biggest upsets in sports.

We had a story.

Third Race Starts Late
The third race began with a long postponement because of a lack of stable wind.  The rules of racing for this Cup say that the race committee cannot run a race after 5 p.m.  and at five the warning gun went off.

In the shifty and fickle winds, the Kiwis gambled massively and it paid off. They committed to the right hand side of the course and were given a huge right hand shift. That lead to a 350-meter lead, a lifetime in this type of racing.
With an all but insurmountable lead, the Kiwis had disaster strike. Coming into the bottom mark the bowman fell off the boat. Instead of getting the spinnaker down, he was being dragged through the water holding on to a line with one hand.

In the ensuing mayhem the spinnaker wrapped in the rig, then was sucked into the jib sheet block. As Alinghi stormed in from behind, the Kiwis were struggling to clear the spinnaker and sheet in the jib. The lead all but evaporated. 

Letting Alinghi in the door seemed to doom the Kiwis. At the next and final turning mark, the Swiss had a good lead. In a highly criticised move, Swiss tactician Brad Butterworth split away from the Kiwis onto the left side of the course. In a stunning twist of fate the wind swung again, this time to the left. 

Coming down to the finish line, where we were on the press boat, it was impossible to tell who would win. With more than 20 lead changes on the last leg, it was the Kiwis who took the win. Certainly the best race in two decades, it will be remembered as one of the best in sailing history.

Race Four Was Test of Boat Speed
Race 4 was sailed in a steadier breeze, allowing for less luck and more a true test of boat speed. Alinghi’s Ed Baird won his first start and controlled the race from there. 

It was a decisive victory.

Alinghi led at the start and maintained the whole way around. They coasted to a close but easy victory. It was the race everyone expected from the whole series.

On Friday’s race, NZ won the start and the two boats sailed out to the extreme right hand side of the course. Team New Zealand held more than it’s own, leading into the top mark. 

On the run, however, New Zealand discovered a small tear in their spinnaker.  Preparing to hoist a new one, the bowman was at the end of the pole just as the spinnaker let go. As is typical in yacht racing, one problem snowballs into maelstrom of disaster. 

The new spinnaker wasn’t fully attached but was hoisted nonetheless. It ended up being a very expensive flag flying from the top of the mast. The old, torn spinnaker was still aloft as well. Then a third kite was hoisted, which wrapped around the head stay, opening in an hourglass shape.

In under three minutes the team had the situation back under control but had lost the lead. They fought hard and got back in to the race, but it was too little too late.

Alinghi won by 19 seconds.

This has been a drama filled week here in Valencia. No one, myself included, ever imagined we would be witnesses to such a hard fought series.

It is still anyone’s game. 

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St. John sailor Nils Erikson on assignment for St. John Tradewinds aboard the official America’s Cup media boat.