Disclaimer: I am not an America’s Cup-class sailor. I raced a Lightening class sailboat years ago, and I won more races than I lost, but I make no claim to be in the same league as the men who are sailing for the America’s Cup off Valencia this month. That being said, what in the sam hill are these guys thinking? Yesterday’s match was exciting, but may have been the most bizarre thing I have ever seen happen on the water.
I am in complete agreement with those who say that the race should not have been held. The wind was light and extremely variable and I am one of those who believes that a race should not be determined by who gets a lucky break with changes in wind direction. A skipper being able to read pressure and gradient is one thing, but no one can read a 20 degree wind shift ten minutes before it happens. That is a matter of pure luck, and luck should not determine a winner.
Even so, the Swiss could have overcome the wind shift disadvantage but made some extraordinarily bad choices. More on that in a moment.
The Swiss won the start, with the Kiwis starting late and very slow but on the right side. Almost immediately, however, the Kiwis got a huge wind shift and were carrying what appeared to be an unbeatable lead approaching the second mark. Then things got really weird.
Either the wind shifted on the Kiwis or they changed tactics as they approached the mark, but they botched the spinnaker drop about as badly as can be, even managing to get it jammed in the genoa sheet (not once but twice) and having to cut it free. Destroying their spinnaker was the least of their problems, they have plenty more on board, all the flubbing around reduced their lead by quite a bit. The Swiss sailed very well and very aggressively and their better boat speed took a toll.
Approaching the third mark was some of the best sailing of the series by both teams. There was excellent strategy and tactics, sail handling was flawless, and the Swiss took the lead just before rounding the mark.
Then the Swiss broke out in a bad case of dumb. The Kiwis gybed away and the Swiss let them go. With the boats on different sides of the course the Kiwis found better wind, passed the Swiss again and won the match.
Why would the Swiss do that? In light airs the wind speed can vary greatly from one place to another on the course, so the trailing boats wants to separate in search of better wind. He has nothing to lose if his search is unsuccessful, and everything to gain. The leading boat, however, has nothing to gain by separating. He doesn’t need better wind, since he is already leading, and he stands to lose if he sails into less wind or his opponent finds better wind. So the leading boat always “covers,” keeping the two boats close and in the same wind. There are sometimes reasons to break with standard practice but that is just not one of them, which yesterday’s race demonstrated.
America's Cup today
Today’s race was more typical of what one might expect of America’s Cup sailing teams. Hard fought close-quarters sailing by two teams who made no mistakes. Well, the Swiss misjudged the lay line approaching the first leeward mark and rounded the mark at very slow speed. That’s a bit unusual, but it happens and it may actually have been more due to wind shift than to misjudgment.
This time the Swiss skipper used a more conventional strategy of keeping a pretty close cover on his opponent while leading. Not surprisingly, it worked and the series is now tied at two apiece.