Emirates Team New Zealand, the juggernaut from Down Under, won a decisive victory over Italy’s Luna Rossa in San Francisco, topping the Louis Vuitton Cup series and advancing to the America’s Cup after winning the challenger’s elimination, seven races to one.
The team’s only loss was a product of hydraulic gear failure, quickly rectified. The Kiwis dominated every other race and proved again they are one of the strongest teams in the modern America’s Cup. In the 2007 Cup, they also won the Louis Vuitton challenger series, and they have, in fact, contended for in the Cup Match in five of the last six events.
Thirty years ago, in Newport, R.I., the inaugural Louis Vuitton Challenge Series churned out a winner of the America’s Cup—the first time in 132 years that a challenger was able to defeat the New York Yacht Club’s defenders. The Australians shocked the sailing world with superior design, a professional approach to competition, psychological tactics on and off the water, and a nationalistic spirit that empowered their challenge, yet it was the discipline of the LV series that was the main ingredient in success. For the first time, challengers dueled through the summer, honing match-racing skills, perfecting crew work and trouble-shooting their challenge.
In the ensuing 30 years, Louis Vuitton has frequently made champions of challengers and staged the pinnacle of international yacht racing assembling the best designers, sailors, industry greats and devoted fans from all over the world with up to 14 countries competing for national pride and the right to challenge the defender. The shoreside pageantry leading up to the actual America’s Cup resembled the Olympics and transformed venues like Newport, Fremantle, Auckland and Valencia into an international yachting spectacle.
San Francisco promised to be the most exciting venue ever, yet away from the waterfront the city has remained aloof, partly because the LV Series only had four qualified countries competing and partly because of some yacht racing shenanigans typical of Cup politics. Korea, after qualifying, never competed due to budget issues. Sweden’s Artemis team suffered a sailing accident that caused the death of a crew member and never recovered time on the water to successfully compete. Italy again had the budget and all the ingredients for success, but they chose to build only one boat and did not match the speed of New Zealand’s second boat, nor their tactical abilities at the crucial starts.
No matter which boat wins the America’s Cup, it will be a New Zealand victory because the majority of sailors on both boats originate in that tiny sailing nation. In fact, the U.S. defender, Oracle Racing, has only one American on board, local San Francisco sailor John Kostecki.
Without the participation of several nations in the Louis Vuitton, a lack of national identification made the racing this year a tough sell both in America and Europe. Equally damaging has been the spectacle of several contests with only one boat on the course due to breakdowns and the delayed preparation of Artemis after the break-up of its first boat last spring. Other factors dampened enthusiasm for this even, including a 22 knot wind limit imposed after the Artemis tragedy; this often led to the cancellation of the second race of the day as the wind continued to build.
Yet for all that, the sailing of the AC 72s has been an extraordinary thing to watch. For those who lined the San Francisco waterfront or watched TV coverage in the bars or at home, this year’s Louis Vuitton provided some of the most exciting sailing that has ever been staged.
Sailing these boats gives new meaning to “close to the edge” as they reach lifting speed off the water, hoisting the crews 15 feet in the air as the hull goes quiet except for the wind raging past and the creak of loads on every aspect of the rig. The crews concentrate intensely as the boat flies (literally) dangerously like a coiled spring under tension, foiling with a roostertail astern, leaving 40 knot chase boats in their wake.
New Zealand approached 50 knots at times in its final Louis Vuitton races, a record likely to be broken during the Cup. The Kiwis also stuffed the bows of their cat hard during one race they already had in hand, and the incident showed their boat’s resiliency. Even though two crew members fell overboard, they kept sailing with deck plates (fairings) shattered and trampoline damaged. The boat’s design, in large part shaped by Pete Melvin, a U.S. designer, has more buoyancy in the bows than Oracle, so pitch-poling seems more easily controlled and the boat is probably safer to sail at its limits.
Looking ahead to the typically lighter winds of September on the Bay, Oracle’s bows have a more tapered entry and their feathered design is considered likely superior; it may be the faster boat, but it also may be more squirrelly and at risk in the same situation.
The contest begins September 7, with up to two short, 45 minute race each day. The victor will be the first to win 9 of 17 races over a two-week schedule including lay days. Every Bay area sports fan not glued to the Niners or the Athletics action will likely make their way to the waterfront where the track is wedged between the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and San Francisco’s downtown waterfront with bleachers lining most vantage points. A few days before the start, no one knows how they will match up and San Francisco’s variable September weather will play a large role. No one expects New Zealand to dominate the starts as they did over Italy and most believe 400 yards below the first mark of the first race will reveal more than we’ve learned all summer until now.
Forget what this year’s Cup is not and could have been. Forget that most sailors cannot relate and that match racing may not be much of a factor, and that the potentially greatest venue in sailing now has wind limits and a low profile as Cup players and politicians jockey into position. Instead, visualize the two fastest sailboats on the planet battling it out on the Bay, hydrofoiling at 50 knots within a short swim of shore, racing for all the marbles, and let’s see what happens. I can’t wait.