If this were a prizefight, the promoter would be arrested for match-fixing. If it were a Guy Ritchie film you’d scoff at the plot line. But just as the America’s Cup was seemingly being packed up into its new Prada flight-box and sent down the stairs of the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron on its way to the first class lounge of Alitalia, the plot twisted with another tight turn on the fixing-plinth screw applied by the Kiwis. The Cup is going nowhere without the mother of all fights.
Without wishing to sound like a broken record or a Formula One blog, it was all down to the starts again with both boats stalling on the grid respectively and handing the advantage on a plate to the other team. That is very much doing down the rest of the sheer brilliance of the racing by two utterly outstanding sailing forces performing beyond the peak of reasonable sporting expectation but a casual observer would naturally draw that conclusion. Honours even, the Match is all square at three-all and you’d have to be Marvin the Mind Reader sitting in a booth on Queen Street taking a dollar a pop to predict the way this is going to fall.
One thing we do know for certain is that what we are being treated to is a rare sight in the America’s Cup. Set the pre-start blancmanges aside today and you have two teams sailing around the track making the impossible look easy. Such is the level that both teams are sailing at that what we have emerging is possibly the greatest, closest, most thrilling Match of all time where just when you think you know the answers and have unlocked the mystery of this contest, your brain is scrambled and crashed and everything is turned upside down.
Luna Rossa came out of the traps smoking in the opening race having suckered the Kiwis into a high-slow drag move in the final 40 seconds back to the start line that has been their calling card of late in this regatta. Quite why Pete Burling fell for the slow dance is anyone’s guess and after a small lefty came in to exacerbate a terrible set-up position to leeward where at best, even without the shift, they were unable to make the pin end, that was effectively the story of the race. Luna Rossa hit the start line magnificently at race pace high on their foils whilst the Kiwis struggled to find the clutch to even get into first gear and had to tack to port to cross the line. Oh dear, oh dear. Give Jimmy Spithill and Francesco Bruni that kind of advantage and the rest of the afternoon is going to be spent in a Tramontana vortex sent with love direct from the Italian alps.
The Italians didn’t so much look majestic as nailed on winners of this America’s Cup. They looked capable of anything out there, sailing higher and less distance with speed out of the tacks to dream of – the sail plan looked powerful and the crew work was worthy of a slot at La Scala Theatre Ballet in Milan when this is all over. The engraver was sharpening his tools and wondering how on earth to etch the full name of the syndicate onto one of the lower plinths of the Auld Mug.
Team New Zealand hung in as the professionals they are and made minor inroads but couldn’t get around the force field of vortices in the nine knot summer Saturday breezes out on the northern Course A which is proving to be such a one-dimensional racetrack where local knowledge matters little. All the signs were there even before the racing started as the Royal New Zealand Air Force, with Blair Tuke’s uncle leading the squadron, buzzed the course and their ceremonial smoke hung in the light air, even at 5,000 feet, for far longer than could be reasonably expected whilst the flags on the simply massive spectator fleet struggled to unfurl.
Being Saturday and with Covid restrictions thankfully down to their lowest alert levels, the fabulously supportive Kiwi public came out to play, lining the Viaduct Harbour and the Race Village in huge numbers for those unable to join the armada out on the water. But again, the locals were the ones biting their nails and wondering who on earth was the script writer in this Cup contest. Luna Rossa had just laid down a win to go 3-2 and the manner of defeat and the finishing delta of 18 seconds looked like Mount Cook in winter – unscalable. The Cup was, perish the thought, being waved off from its shores, stolen by an Italian team with a better ability to adapt to the conditions and mode accordingly. Barrels of defeat were being stared down.
But as carbon copies in reverse go, race two left the neutral spectators scratching their heads. Team New Zealand came in with the starboard entry and watched as Luna Rossa went for the same set up that had served the Kiwis so poorly in race one. It was almost a gracious choreography of two polite gentleman sailing in a wooden classics regatta – “no, after you, no please, I insist.” Lord Burling took the high road whilst His Grace Spithill dialled down, gybed, and courteously fell into a wind hole. This wasn’t the America’s Cup. This was farcical. Team New Zealand slammed Te Rehutai onto the start line on the ‘B’ of the Bang high on its foils at full thunder and romped off into the sunset. Quite extraordinary to watch, and the record will show a 1 minute 41 second victory (yes you read that correctly) after some sublime drag racing as Te Rehutai showed its inherent speed and again, top class crew work from a team that is getting better and better as the Cup goes deeper.
So it’s three all. No real change but the runway is getting shorter. The chance to recover for either team from that day when one of these will record a double win is narrowing. Have a shocker, select the wrong sails, mess up the starts, get it wrong twice and this could quickly fall either way and put one team in the box seat to snatch the Cup.
What’s abundantly clear after the first three days is that both boats are brilliant front-runners. Neither makes tactical mistakes and it’s hard to spot crew errors. Such is the 747 wing effect that running out front on these straight up and down courses is a mighty advantage and, looking at the forecast for the coming days, it’s more of the same. When either boat gets ahead, their unique mode looks like the answer, the code, the DNA of the contest but you just can’t call which one has the advantage. Look at the speeds and it’s all Team New Zealand. But look at the VMG and it’s all Luna Rossa.
Is this a speed race or a VMG race? Pick your poison. Pay your money. Take your chances. Crystal balls are cloudy. This is anyone’s America’s Cup.