It’s a very short journey from the Ritz to skid row. The fickle nature of sport can be cruel and if you’re an Italian fan, bleary-eyed from a morning call at the dead of night in Europe, you’re nursing a strong sense that today just wasn’t your day. The week ahead feels like a long haul already. If you’re a Kiwi fan, it’s elation. Thunder Road turned into Desperation Alley but the scorecard reads 5-3 and Team New Zealand are two wins from defending the America’s Cup. But after a second race today that was nerve shredding frustration personified for both teams, in the back of everyone’s mind there’s a nagging feeling that this isn’t over by a long shot.
After the sheer disappointment of no racing on Sunday before a record crowd of spectators, Monday on Course E should have come with a Parental Guidance warning. The potential for a horror show, bad language and mild scenes of violence would rightly have elicited an ‘R’ rating – young children’s eyes should have been shielded. But the first race was a classic where at last we saw a pass with Team New Zealand showing the world what two knots extra boatspeed and some massive tweaks to their tacking style can produce.
It was raw horsepower being harnessed by the very best sailors on the planet who have figured out a way to generate forward power and acceleration through their manoeuvres right at the moment when it mattered most. Still Team New Zealand are being schooled by Spithill and Bruni in the pre-starts but they’ve figured out that a level start or even one with a slight disadvantage is no barrier to them getting clear, breaking cover and then laying down the rubber on the racetrack.
Such was the inherent speed of Te Rehutai with its J1.5 jib up, as compared to the Italians’ full-fat J3, that they were carrying less drag all around the course and looked like a different boat. They could tack faster whilst remaining somewhere in the same postcode as Luna Rossa on point, narrowing the VMG loss but with dynamite speed that is just so hard to counter.
The AC75 code was well and truly cracked and after a first lap behind the Italians, they split the cover at the leeward gate where Luna Rossa was forced into a late eagle gybe and head up to get round the right hand mark and track out to the favoured port boundary, whilst the Kiwis executed the full JK rounding to head up, tack quickly and go to the starboard hand side of the upwind leg. From that set up, the Kiwis could play the rapidly shifting right hand oscillation and eke through. Once ahead, it was a cakewalk to victory for the Kiwis. There was just no way they were letting the Italians have a piece of the action and the resultant 58 second win looked like the script was being written for a rapid conclusion to this match-up.
But the wind Gods in sailing are nothing if not inconsistent. They take no prisoners. They don’t read scripts and they disrespect form in its entirety. As the late summer breezes started to fade and die, huge holes began appearing at the top of the course and although conditions were good enough to start race eight it was a rapidly deteriorating scene. Again, Luna Rossa bossed the start with as close to perfection on the pin end as is humanly possible. A hike up in high mode, burning a little speed but dramatically closing the gauge, forced the Kiwis to tack off to the unfavoured starboard side of the course and by mark one Luna Rossa was in the commanding lead position with its big jib flying and all the aces in the pack.
But a quarter of the way down the run, something was wrong onboard Luna Rossa, the jib wouldn’t set correctly and a hundred metre lead evaporated as Te Rehutai soaked down onto their quarter. Pete Burling didn’t fancy the left hand side (looking down the course) so opted for a quarter gybe to cross Luna Rossa’s stern and again we saw the vortex shedding come back into play. Such was the hole left in the wind that the Kiwis fell off their foils and were left stranded half way down the run as the Italians smoked off into what looked like a truly unassailable lead. It was desperate. The Kiwis were doing everything to try and rise the beast from its slumber. No matter how they poked, prodded, teased and cajoled, it just wouldn’t shed water and stayed resolutely stuck to the surface tension like a dropped peanut butter sandwich on a stone floor.
Luna Rossa was off. This was going to be 4-4 by the end of the day as sure as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. By the time Team New Zealand got flying again, the Italians were over a leg ahead. All the Kiwis could do was try and save face, sail the course and pray for a miracle. Today, God was a Kiwi and all his disciples descended from Maori stock.
With the race co-ordinators calling a shortened course, everything was going Italy’s way right up until the final tack of leg three with just a quick up and down left to run. A slow final tack, just a fraction off pace as they came into the top mark, and Luna Rossa was down. Despite eking around the mark, they just couldn’t get flying again as they sat in light oscillations unable to generate the apparent wind and get airborne. Traversing from boundary to boundary and beyond it was like watching a madman in a padded cell. You felt desperately sorry. Sport shouldn’t be like this and with the Kiwis flying up behind, using every trick of camber, cant and skill to stay flying, it was a horrible sight to see the Italians in such distress.
Te Rehutai blasted around, stole the lead and romped away from the light winds at the top of the course into more pressure and an unassailable lead. They sailed ridiculous angles on the final upwind desperate to keep flying and by the time they approached the finish line they were going from reach to reach with the tacking angle of a supertanker. The finishing delta of 3 minutes 55 seconds was a final insult to the Italians who have every sympathy from the sporting public and know that it’s in no way a reflection of the closeness of this Match. Some days this happens. And with games of chance, sometimes the fickle finger of fate plays against you. They’ll be back in the gambling salon tomorrow and with the wind staying in the lower regions for the rest of the week, this just isn’t over by a long shot for the Italians.
But with a double-win raceday finally secured, Team New Zealand has it all to lose now. Win two and the Cup is secured and they will have overcome a mighty challenge in true Kiwi fashion. What we know for sure though is that the next couple of days are going to see Italian fireworks that only the southern crater of Mount Etna will challenge for sheer spectacle. Luna Rossa will fight to the death and the Kiwis will need every ounce of guile, cunning and that click of boatspeed to secure the Cup in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron for another four years.
The head has it all New Zealand. The heart has it going to the wire. The gambler is on Italy. The pundits are all Kiwi. The wind Gods will decide.
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