‘A little bit of boatspeed makes you a tactical genius.’ It’s a well-known mantra. But how many of us amateurs have genuinely had the marvellous feeling of knowing that you can run down the opposition, start from behind and cruise through? In one-design racing, boatspeed is a rare commodity and I’ve personally only ever experienced the feeling towards the end of a season when the crew-work is perfect, the team together as one, the sails and mast work beautifully together and you stick the boat roughly in the right zone. Boatspeed, it would seem to me, is generated off so many factors coming together.
In IRC racing it’s different. Get a boat that measures well and then has the ability to sail above its rating in most conditions and you can scratch your name on any number of regional trophies and start to believe that you are a genuine rockstar that just never had the opportunities in life. I’ve had that experience and it’s marvellous.
The British Olympic Team spent years searching for boatspeed and the level of detail they employed in the Sid Howlett days is legendary. I remember Sid telling me a story about moving the keel of Iain Percy’s Star aft about one centimetre to get the balance right. One centimetre? And the detail on Ben’s Finn was weapons-grade to such a degree that it was covered up after every race. Did these marginal gains equal boatspeed? Well you could argue ‘yes’ but it’s a fine line. Put the best sailors at the very peak of their powers in a super-fast boat and you have stardust – usually in the form of gold medals.
More to the point, if you as a sailor feel that you have a fast boat and you have it in your brain and genuinely believe that you have the fastest boat, you approach the racecourse with a confidence and an expectation that not only can you win, but you should be winning. That’s a hard mindset to beat.
For the America’s Cup crews, playing the game at the highest level in an all-out arms race, it’s a long slog to get confidence in the equipment. Any of these crews can nail the crew-work, that’s long hours on and off the water and they’ve all done it. But the game of technological leap-frog is a blind-siding experience. Just when you think you’ve got it nailed, out from left field emerges a game-changer and you find yourself on the back foot.
I remember being on the media boat behind Alinghi in the first race of the AC in 2003 as they trailed the Kiwis, hula and all, at the weather mark. Down that first run they just ground away as the wind shifted forward and it was relentless boatspeed just grinding away at the lead. In San Francisco, once Oracle had found the ‘on’ button, again it was boatspeed upwind that just pummelled the Kiwis into submission. Revenge was sweet in Bermuda for the Kiwis however, and again, boatspeed – almost a generation ahead level of boatspeed – won the day.
So who’s got it in this Cup? Are the aero mods of Prada the key? Is it Magic with its radical hull form and sail ideation that is going to win? Has Ineos unlocked the elixir of speed through a radical overhaul of every single system and component? The answer is that we simply won’t know until the first upwind leg tomorrow. Quite who will come off the line and gauge up, hitting the first boundary in control, is anyone’s guess. The conditions will be crucial. The gains will be marginal. But the result will be obvious. From what we have seen, it’s Magic’s to lose, Prada look smart and Ineos is the big unknown.
One thing’s for sure, we will look back at the Prada Cup and say “XXX was obviously going to win. You could see it from the start. The clues were all there.” And if I close my eyes and try to look forward a couple of weeks, I’m struggling to see beyond an American Magic / Prada final with the yanks taking it. Just. Final race stuff. But who knows? It wouldn’t be my preferred choice. A Magic / Ineos final would set the world on fire.
And then, gulp, it’s on to the boatspeed kings in the form of Team New Zealand who have been toying with the Challengers of late. That boat is a weapon and it’s frightening to see what they will be bringing onstream in March – mark my words, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
That’s what makes this Cup one of the most fascinating of the modern era. We’re all set for 2.13am tomorrow morning UK time. Bring. It. On.
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