Let me take you back to one of the best races, in my opinion, in the history of the America’s Cup. It’s a personal recollection and I was fortunate to be on an official boat trailing just metres behind. To be there was such a privilege. I had the box seat. The golden ticket. Money couldn’t buy it and it was electric. It was everything. In a visual context, it was up there with seeing Queen at Wembley in ’86 or the Stones at Giants Stadium in ’94. It was one of the sporting moments of my life and it was devastatingly good. For Team New Zealand it was like a punch in the solar plexus. A body blow. Psychologically it was game over, right there and then.
It was race two of the 2003 Cup and it was very late in the afternoon at the end of a beautiful summer day out on the Huaraki Gulf. The spectator fleet was vast. We had seen dolphins – dozens of them in huge shoals – playfully teasing with inquisitive dives and dips. Fickle pulses of wind filtered down the racecourse with anything from 7-12 knots. A summer haze hung over the Auckland City skyline and it was Alinghi, one-nil up after showing awesome performance in the first race at the top end of the wind range, going into this light weather contest with question marks hanging over its configuration. Was SUI-64 too moded for heavy airs? Could it compete against the Hula-shorn NZL-82 that could cheat fluid dynamics and create a longer hull profile? So many questions that needed answers.
Watching this race now against the speed machines we are accustomed to in the AC75s and it’s like walking in glue. You could literally prepare, cook and eat a roast dinner in the same time. The Cup would be stone dead if we went backwards but for fans of traditional tactics, this is a great watch. Team New Zealand did all the running but it was tortoise-slow stuff. For the first four legs of five, they sailed magnificently. It was actually a quiet watch as they flopped through tacks and smoothly glided across the millpond waters. They kept it tactical and covered relentlessly and had the measure of Alinghi all day. But it was tight. It was a Brad Butterworth masterclass to keep the Swiss in the game and keep the action close. Alinghi were, and they said as much afterwards, holding on for dear life.
I will spare you two hours and ten minutes of your life. You can thank me later. Buy me a beer sometime but please scroll through to that marker on this YouTube video below and watch just the final mark rounding and the tactical run to the finish. It’s one of the greatest battles you will ever see on the water. Plus the peerless PJ Montgomery is commentating.
At the final windward mark, Dean Barker and the brains trust aboard the Kiwi boat call for a bear-away hoist. This must haunt Deano. He must wake up in a cold sweat at night and go “why did I do that?” Butterworth calls for a tack, bear away, gybe set which is just about as hard a manoeuvre you could call in these IACC monoliths, to get on the inside to windward of the Kiwis down the run and try to roll them. It was the genius call. Butterworth in his prime. A cooler tactician there has never been.
Now the problem that I had, was that the New Zealand Herald that summer called me just ahead of the Finals and asked me for a prediction of who would win the America’s Cup and what the score would be. I had hung out around the Alinghi base and knew they were quick. I was starstruck by the afterguard of Coutts, Butterworth, Schumann and the likes of Warwick Fleury and Simon Daubney were akin to rockstars in my eyes. But this Hula-thing on Team New Zealand put the cat amongst the pigeons.
So I ummed and aahed and eventually said, 5-0 to Alinghi. It was an insane call. The journalist mocked me. “Really? FIVE – NIL? You sure?” And there it was in print. Oh how the other journalists laughed. Some were quite angry and shook their heads at me. The folly of youth they opined. It’s never 5-0 in the America’s Cup they said. And onboard that media yacht, just metres behind the action I had a completely bonkers French journalist from L’Equipe who, whilst the Kiwis were ahead for over two hours, couldn’t help but remind me of just how ‘stupeeed’ my prediction was. But when we saw that tack, gybe, set executed to perfection, it became obvious that something was about to happen. The Frenchman went very quiet. Doormouse quiet.
What unfolded down that run was utter genius. You have to watch it. I think it’s the best 28 minutes of footage of Cup racing you will ever see from a tactical standpoint. It is breathtaking gybe for gybe, puff for puff, boat to boat action. I watch it now and it’s still as good. Admittedly it’s one for the purists. Please don’t watch it if you’re a foiling Moth specialist or under the age of 45. You just won’t get it. But It was about 6.30pm when it finished to a cacophony of boat sirens. It was an exhausting day and I remember stepping off that media boat back in Auckland in the dark.
But it was just an unbelievable experience to see it and one thing that stuck with me was a look astern from Russell Coutts on the second to last gybe as he carried TNZ out to the right before the gybe to the finish. Sorry the video doesn’t pick it up, so this is all recollection but trust me it happened – Alinghi was fully powered up on a hot angle with the sheets croaking and groaning. It was perfection and Coutts just glared back at the media boat for a split second with a look that was pure: “I know I’ve just nailed this.” That’s the best I can describe it. In a report afterwards I called it “the look” but because it wasn’t captured, it didn’t resonate with anyone other than myself and a couple of fellow journalists on the boat. It was a look of sheer will and determination. Unforgettable.
This is what the Cup means. It’s races like this and times like this that are just unforgettable. I know there will be loads of you reading this with better tales of races that stuck with you – but that’s fantastic. Cherish those memories. Recount them however you choose to do it – in a bar, in a blog, in a tweet, on a forum – but tell people. The America’s Cup has it all. It’s a lifelong passion and fascination and once you’ve experienced it, it’s there in your soul forever. What a sport. What a competition. And the great thing is that even in the modern day, in this Prada Cup, we’ve had amazing racing. That Ineos/Prada race in the Round Robin will be uploaded in the memory banks and downloaded into history – THAT cross by Ainslie was what Cup legends are made from.
It’s a great sport. It’s a great contest. And for the record, it was 5-0 in 2003.
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